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  • Jaejeong & Jaeah Kim

How Messenger Pigeons Work

(homing pigeons being released)

How do you communicate with your friends? Texts? How do you think people communicated before texts? Calls? What about before calls? Emails? What about before emails? Letters? What about before even postal services were invented? That’s right, since all the way back in 3000 BC, messenger pigeons (often called homing pigeons) were the primary means of communication in many civilizations for decades. Messenger pigeons are a variety of domestic pigeons derived from the rock doves, selectively bred for the ability to find its way back home over huge distances. If you ever wondered how these birds achieve such a magnificent feat, well here’s how.

Much research has been done on how messenger pigeons are able to find their way back home from distant places they’ve never visited before, and most researchers agree that such homing ability is based on a ‘map and compass’ model, where the map feature allows the bird to process their relative location and the compass feature allows the birds to orient themselves in the correct direction. The map mechanism depends on the ability of the pigeons to detect the earth’s magnetic field, while the compass mechanism relies on the sun. Although scientists initially believed that the large amount of iron particles on top of a pigeons’ beak acted like a compass to help the pigeons navigate, a 2012 study proved this theory wrong, and to this date, scientists aren’t sure how these fascinating birds are able to sense the earth’s magnetic field. However, there has been a multitude of research on the topic, and scientists have now discovered that pigeons use their sense of smell, hearing, and sight to help themselves navigate– Pigeons orient themselves using atmospheric odors (called olfactory navigation), visual landmarks, and even low-frequency infra-sounds. GPS tracing studies have also shown that gravitational anomalies play a role in a messenger pigeons’ ability to navigate.

Messenger pigeons are almost never used these days due to the development of much more efficient methods of communication, as well as the animal welfare concerns associated with pigeon messaging. However, even if pigeon messaging was to be attempted again today, it would be much less efficient due to the fact that the abundance of artificial lights and air-conditioning would disrupt a messenger pigeon’s ability to return home. I guess we’ll just have to stick to boring text messages.


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