Who Snorted a Compass?

For centuries, humans have used pigeons for food, pets and messengers. One of the main reasons for the latter role of domesticated pigeons (or rock doves) is the fact that these birds seem to have an excellent sense of direction. In cities especially New York, London and Venice feral pigeons seem to run rampant. These pigeons were once domesticated but then released back into the wild. Through our actions however, some species have also gone extinct. Perhaps the most famous of these is the passenger pigeon whose final member died in a zoo in 1914. The passenger pigeon was killed for its meat as a cheap solution for slave food during early colonial times as well as through deforestation.

A study done by researchers in Italy were looking at how homing pigeons find their way home. Using GPS navigation the researchers plugged either nostril of the homing pigeons and released them a certain distance from their nest. They then tracked the route which the birds took and discovered that when the right nostril was blocked, the pigeons tended to take a longer, more laborious route. They also tended to take more breaks.

Previous findings have also indicated that the pigeon has its own internal compass and when merged with this study there seem to be indications that the right nostril has something to do with the birds’ navigation system. There is much to learn about how pigeons traverse their surroundings and return to their nests, but this study brings new insights to their unique system.

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