Featured Research

from universities, journals, and other organizations

Disappearing homing pigeon mystery solved

Date:
January 30, 2013
Source:
The Journal of Experimental Biology
Summary:
Homing pigeons are remarkable navigators. Although they are able to find their loft from almost any location, they do get lost occasionally. The reason why had been a mystery until a scientist wondered if the birds use the loft's infrasound signature as a homing beacon to get their bearings. He discovered that the atmosphere misdirected the loft's infrasound signal on days when pigeons were lost, preventing them from finding the correct bearing home.

Rock pigeon (Columba livia).
Credit: Martin Spurny / Fotolia

Homing pigeons are usually remarkably efficient navigators, however, on rare occasions, things go drastically wrong. So, when Jon Hagstrum of the US Geological Survey read in his local newspaper about two races when pigeons had been lost in 1998, he was reminded of a lecture by Bill Keeton that he had heard years before as an undergraduate at Cornell University. Keeton had been studying how birds successfully navigated from distant and unfamiliar release sites. However, the birds almost always had problems selecting the correct bearing home when released from three local sites.

According to Keeton, pigeons released at Castor Hill and the town of Weedsport consistently took the same wrong turn when they departed. Meanwhile, birds that were released from Jersey Hill tended to head off in random directions, but with one exception: all of the birds that departed from the hill on 13 August 1969 returned home successfully having taken the correct bearing. Explaining that Keeton had already ruled out the possibility of a disturbance in the local magnetic field, Hagstrum recalls, 'Bill asked if we geologists had an idea what might be going on at these sites'.

Several years after Keeton's lecture Hagstrum came up with a possible solution to the problem when he read that pigeons can hear incredibly low frequency 'infrasound'. Explaining that infrasound -- which can generated by minute vibrations in the planet surface caused by waves deep in the ocean -- travels for thousands of kilometres, Hagstrum wondered whether homing pigeons are listening for the distinctive low frequency rumble of their loft area to find their bearing home. In which case, birds that could not hear the infrasound signal, because the release site was shielded from it in some way, could not get their bearing and would get lost. Hagstrum decided to investigate the meteorological conditions on the days of unsuccessful releases to find out if there was something in the air that could explain the pigeons' disorientation. In The Journal of Experimental Biology, he publishes his discovery that Keeton's lost pigeons could not hear the infrasound signal from their home loft because it was diverted by the atmosphere.

However, to make this discovery, Hagstrum had to first reconstruct the atmospheric conditions on the days when pigeons had been released from the three locations. Having successfully installed a complex acoustics program -- HARPA -- with the help of USGS computer scientist Larry Baker and using accurate temperature, wind direction and speed measurements taken at local weather stations on those days, Hagstrum reconstructed the atmospheric conditions. Then, he calculated how infrasound travelled from the loft through the atmosphere, refracting through layers in the air and bouncing off the ground, to find out if Jersey Hill was shaded from the loft's infrasound homing beacon and how the signal from the loft was channelled by the wind and local terrain to Castor Hill and Weedsport.

Amazingly, on all of the days when the birds vanished from Jersey Hill, Hagstrum could see that the loft's infrasonic signal was guided away from the ground and high into the atmosphere: the birds could not pick it up. However, on 13 August 1969, the atmospheric conditions were perfect and this time the infrasonic signal was guided directly to the Jersey Hill site. And when he calculated the paths that the loft's infrasonic signal travelled to Castor Hill and Weedsport they also explained why the birds consistently took the wrong bearing. The terrain and winds had diverted the infrasound so that it approached the release site from the wrong direction, sending the birds off on the wrong bearing.

Explaining that the birds must use the loft's infrasonic homing beacon to get their bearing before setting the direction for their return flight according to their sun compass, Hagstrum says, 'I am a bit surprised that after 36 years I finally answered Bill Keeton's question to the Cornell Geology Department', adding that he is particularly pleased that he was able to use Keeton's own data to solve the mystery.


Story Source:

The above story is based on materials provided by The Journal of Experimental Biology. The original article was written by Kathryn Knight. Note: Materials may be edited for content and length.


Journal Reference:

  1. Jonathan T. Hagstrum. Atmospheric propagation modeling indicates homing pigeons use loft-specific infrasonic 'map' cues. The Journal of Experimental Biology, 2013 DOI: 10.1242/%u200Bjeb.072934

Cite This Page:

The Journal of Experimental Biology. "Disappearing homing pigeon mystery solved." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 30 January 2013. <www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2013/01/130130184147.htm>.
The Journal of Experimental Biology. (2013, January 30). Disappearing homing pigeon mystery solved. ScienceDaily. Retrieved July 24, 2014 from www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2013/01/130130184147.htm
The Journal of Experimental Biology. "Disappearing homing pigeon mystery solved." ScienceDaily. www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2013/01/130130184147.htm (accessed July 24, 2014).

Share This




More Plants & Animals News

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Featured Research

from universities, journals, and other organizations


Featured Videos

from AP, Reuters, AFP, and other news services

Boy Attacked by Shark in Florida

Boy Attacked by Shark in Florida

Reuters - US Online Video (July 24, 2014) An 8-year-old boy is bitten in the leg by a shark while vacationing at a Florida beach. Linda So reports. Video provided by Reuters
Powered by NewsLook.com
Goma Cheese Brings Whiff of New Hope to DRC

Goma Cheese Brings Whiff of New Hope to DRC

Reuters - Business Video Online (July 24, 2014) The eastern region of the Democratic Republic of Congo, mainly known for conflict and instability, is an unlikely place for the production of fine cheese. But a farm in the village of Masisi, in North Kivu is slowly transforming perceptions of the area. Known simply as Goma cheese, the Congolese version of Dutch gouda has gained popularity through out the region. Ciara Sutton reports. Video provided by Reuters
Powered by NewsLook.com
Dogs Appear To Become Jealous Of Owners' Attention

Dogs Appear To Become Jealous Of Owners' Attention

Newsy (July 23, 2014) A U.C. San Diego researcher says jealousy isn't just a human trait, and dogs aren't the best at sharing the attention of humans with other dogs. Video provided by Newsy
Powered by NewsLook.com
Professor Creates Site Revealing Where People's Cats Live

Professor Creates Site Revealing Where People's Cats Live

Newsy (July 23, 2014) ​It's called I Know Where Your Cat Lives, and you can keep hitting the "Random Cat" button to find more real cats all over the world. Video provided by Newsy
Powered by NewsLook.com

Search ScienceDaily

Number of stories in archives: 140,361

Find with keyword(s):
Enter a keyword or phrase to search ScienceDaily for related topics and research stories.

Save/Print:
Share:

Breaking News:
from the past week

In Other News

... from NewsDaily.com

Science News

    Health News

      Environment News

        Technology News



          Save/Print:
          Share:

          Free Subscriptions


          Get the latest science news with ScienceDaily's free email newsletters, updated daily and weekly. Or view hourly updated newsfeeds in your RSS reader:

          Get Social & Mobile


          Keep up to date with the latest news from ScienceDaily via social networks and mobile apps:

          Have Feedback?


          Tell us what you think of ScienceDaily -- we welcome both positive and negative comments. Have any problems using the site? Questions?
          Mobile: iPhone Android Web
          Follow: Facebook Twitter Google+
          Subscribe: RSS Feeds Email Newsletters
          Latest Headlines Health & Medicine Mind & Brain Space & Time Matter & Energy Computers & Math Plants & Animals Earth & Climate Fossils & Ruins