Navigational Map in Pigeon’s Head Helps Find Its Way Back Home, Study


Homing Pigeons are believed to have a spatial map that helps them find their way home, according to a study conducted by the researchers from the University of Zurich (UZH). The findings are published in the Journal of Experimental Biology.

"Pigeons use their heads to fly," said Nicole Blaser, a doctoral student in biology at the University of Zurich who authored the Journal of Experimental Biology study.

Apart from using the Earth's magnetic field, the stars and the position of the sun to determine their journey back home, homing pigeons were found to possess cognitive capabilities.

The scientists arrived at the conclusion after they fixed miniature GPS loggers in homing pigeons to observe their flight paths. Blaser and her team established three locations for the birds to navigate from: a home loft, a food loft and an unfamiliar location. In advance, the researchers trained the pigeons not to obtain food in the home loft.

"We fed the pigeons in a second loft around thirty kilometers away, from where they each had to fly back to their home loft," said Blaser.

Then the scientists brought the pigeons to the unfamiliar location to make them fly back to the home loft. Natural obstacles prevented the pigeons from seeing the home loft, forcing them to depend on their inherent navigational skills to lead them back home. The 131 pigeons were divided into two groups: while one group was fed before flying home, the other was not allowed to eat before it was released.

"With this arrangement, we wanted to find out whether the hungry pigeons fly first to the home loft and from there to the food loft or whether they are able to fly directly to the food loft," Blaser said.

"As we expected, the satiated pigeons flew directly to the home loft," said Prof. Hans-Peter Lipp, neuroanatomist at UZH and Blaser's supervisor for her doctoral thesis. "They already started on course for their loft and only deviated from that course for a short time to make topography-induced detours."

On the other hand, the hungry pigeons took a different path, travelling first to the food loft first before heading home.

This experiment determined that pigeons can find their geographical location and navigate accordingly relative to the target. They could even choose between several targets.

This difference in flight directions between both the groups helped the team to conclude that the pigeons indeed have a cognitive navigational map in their heads that allows them to fly back to their home.

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