Lewis Wolpert: 'Many pigeons prefer to fly following roads'

How good is your sense of direction? Having been taken by car some 20 miles, could you easily find your way back home if you then had to drive?

How good is your sense of direction? Having been taken by car some 20 miles, could you easily find your way back home if you then had to drive? Could you do as well as pigeons? Their homing ability relies, it is thought, on a map and compass mechanism that involves an internal clock and a compass direction related to the sun. Butrecent work has shown that this is not enough, and that they must also have a large-scale mental map which gives them information about their current position in relation to their loft. What this mechanism might be is controversial, and both use of the earth's magnetic field and gradients in the air that can be detected by smell, have been proposed. There is also the problem that the birds do not fly directly home according to a a straight compass route.

But it is generally agreed that vision could play an important role, particularly when they are just a few miles from their loft; when further away the role of vision is controversial. This is the issue which new research has tried to resolve. A European group of scientists have used a small global positioning system which is attached to the back of each pigeon and records in detail the entire route taken by the pigeons as they fly home. It is accurate in recording the position of a bird every second to about 20 feet.

Over a period of three years, 216 tracks of 34 birds were analysed. All the pigeons were pre-trained from sites near the west coast of Italy. The experienced pigeons oriented themselves homewards on release, no matter where they were released. Yet many of the tracks from a site on the west coast which was some 20 miles north-east from their home, converged and ran together along the coastal highway.

This involved a western deviation from their direct path to their loft. Were they following the road? Many pigeons flew from long distances in parallel with the coastal highway which implies that they were relying on visual cues. One bird flew for six miles on this course despite it being windy close to the sea.

Then when they got within about six miles from the loft, the road-following pigeons appeared to make a directional decision. Typically, they began to circle above the region where the highway separated into two.

Some pigeons, a minority, then took a direct route to the loft flying over creeks and valleys. The other pigeons turned sharply towards the road that left the highway and led to their loft, although it added four miles to the flight.

These observations suggest that pigeons can find their loft using a compass mechanism, but many prefer to use a road-following strategy, which may involve the construction of a mental map. Large roads can stabilise flight direction when they are far from home. This causes the pigeons to add extra mileage to their journey home, though this turned out to be small. But the flight paths along the roads were at a lower altitude and they flew at a slower rate. Flights across the countryside or hills were at a higher altitude and faster, and there were more local errors in direction finding. On balance, following the road cost more in energy spent. Perhaps they just prefer to fly along familiar paths rather than unfamiliar countryside guided by their compass. It may also free the pigeon's brain from consciously doing a difficult task, and so allows them to focus on other tasks, such as looking out for predators.

Earlier studies did not provide similar evidence and suggested instead that pigeons were attracted chiefly by topographical features they were familiar with, such as the type of village and type of landscape. So it is important to realise that in these new studies the pigeons had grown up in the region and had already been trained to return to their loft. There is also some preliminary evidence that in long - 190-mile - runs of Belgian racing, pigeons do use road following.

Whatever future research shows, it is clear that pigeons have a remarkable ability to switch from one homing strategy to another. Genes have done amazing things to their brains.

Professor Wolpert is professor of biology as applied to medicine at University College London

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Project Implementation Executive

£18000 - £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They work with major vehicle ma...

Recruitment Genius: Chiropractic Assistant

£16500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Chiropractic Assistant is needed in a ...

Recruitment Genius: Digital Account Executive - Midlands

£18000 - £26000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They work with major vehicle ma...

Recruitment Genius: Web Developer

£28000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company provides coaching ...

Day In a Page

NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

The wars that come back to haunt us

David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders
Heston Blumenthal to cook up a spice odyssey for British astronaut manning the International Space Station

UK's Major Tum to blast off on a spice odyssey

Nothing but the best for British astronaut as chef Heston Blumenthal cooks up his rations
John Harrison's 'longitude' clock sets new record - 300 years on

‘Longitude’ clock sets new record - 300 years on

Greenwich horologists celebrate as it keeps to within a second of real time over a 100-day test
Fears in the US of being outgunned in the vital propaganda wars by Russia, China - and even Isis - have prompted a rethink on overseas broadcasters

Let the propaganda wars begin - again

'Accurate, objective, comprehensive': that was Voice of America's creed, but now its masters want it to promote US policy, reports Rupert Cornwell
Why Japan's incredible long-distance runners will never win the London Marathon

Japan's incredible long-distance runners

Every year, Japanese long-distance runners post some of the world's fastest times – yet, come next weekend, not a single elite competitor from the country will be at the London Marathon
Why does Tom Drury remain the greatest writer you've never heard of?

Tom Drury: The quiet American

His debut was considered one of the finest novels of the past 50 years, and he is every bit the equal of his contemporaries, Jonathan Franzen, Dave Eggers and David Foster Wallace
You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

Dave Hax's domestic tips are reminiscent of George Orwell's tea routine. The world might need revolution, but we like to sweat the small stuff, says DJ Taylor
Beige is back: The drab car colours of the 1970s are proving popular again

Beige to the future

Flares and flounce are back on catwalks but a revival in ’70s car paintjobs was a stack-heeled step too far – until now
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's dishes highlight the delicate essence of fresh cheeses

Bill Granger cooks with fresh cheeses

More delicate on the palate, milder, fresh cheeses can also be kinder to the waistline
Aston Villa vs Liverpool: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful,' says veteran Shay Given

Shay Given: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful'

The Villa keeper has been overlooked for a long time and has unhappy memories of the national stadium – but he is savouring his chance to play at Wembley
Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own - Michael Calvin

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own