Today’s Wonder of the Day was inspired by olga. olga Wonders, “How do homing piegons know where to go to deliver a message?” Thanks for WONDERing with us, olga!
How do you like to communicate with your friends? Do you pick up the telephone to talk to them? Or would you prefer to send them text messages? Perhaps you have fun sending short messages and pictures via smartphone apps?
What if you had a bird that would deliver a message to your friend? Your friend could then write a response that your bird would bring back to you. Sound a bit like sending owls in the wizarding world of Harry Potter? That type of magic isn't entirely the stuff of books, especially if you have a homing pigeon!
Homing pigeons are a type of domestic pigeon descended from the rock pigeon. Wild rock pigeons have an innate ability to find their way home from long distances. Today's homing pigeons have been carefully bred to do the same, including carrying messages over those long distances.
Unlike the owls in the Harry Potter books, homing pigeons can't be given an address or a person to fly to. If taken a ways from home, though, they can find their way back home in a remarkably short period of time. In fact, homing pigeons have been known to find their way home from as many as 1,100 miles away, and they can travel an average of 50 miles per hour with bursts of up to 90 mph!
This ability has made them valuable as messengers since at least the time of the ancient Egyptians. Homing pigeons were used extensively in both World War I and World War II. Several birds even received medals for their service in delivering critical messages during wartime!
But how do they find their way home over such long distances? Could you imagine being dropped off 1,000 miles away and having to find your way home? You might reach for a map, smartphone, or Global Positioning System (GPS) receiver to guide you home. What do homing pigeons do?
Despite many scientific studies over the years, no one yet fully understands how homing pigeons navigate home across long distances. There are several theories that experts believe explain at least part of the processes at work.
Scientists now believe that homing pigeons have both compass and map mechanisms that help them navigate home. The compass mechanism helps them to fly in the right direction, while the map mechanism allows them to compare where they are to where they want to be (home).
A homing pigeon's compass mechanism likely relies upon the Sun. Like many other birds, homing pigeons can use the position and angle of the Sun to determine the proper direction for flight. The map mechanism, however, remains a bit of a mystery.
Some researchers believe homing pigeons use magnetoreception, which involves relying on Earth's magnetic fields for guidance. Researchers have found that homing pigeons have concentrations of iron particles in their beaks that would allow them to detect magnetic fields easily.
More recent research, however, suggests that homing pigeons may instead rely upon low-frequency infrasound to find their way home. These low-frequency sounds are inaudible to human ears, but they're created by nearly everything, including the oceans and Earth's crust.
Homing pigeons may listen to these sounds until they recognize the signature sounds of their home roost. Of course, researchers also note that, once homing pigeons get closer to home, they may also be guided, in part, by familiar landmarks, just like humans use when navigating.