Passenger pigeons help to navigate

November 15, 2012 by Pete Wilton, Oxsciblog
Passenger pigeons help to navigate
Homing pigeons with GPS backpacks. Credit: Zsuzsa Akos

Many animals travel long distances in groups but little is known about how this may influence the navigational skills of individuals.

To test if travelling with others who know the way affects a bird's path-finding abilities a team from Oxford University, UCL, and Microsoft Research Cambridge, studied . They paired up experienced and less experienced - 'passenger' - pigeons on repeated and then recorded how well the navigated on their own.

I asked Benjamin Pettit of Oxford University's Department of Zoology, one of the authors of a report of the research in , all about passengers, pigeons, and learning in a

OxSciBlog: How might some animals be 'passengers' & others 'drivers'?

"Animals that live in groups will often use each others' behaviour as a source of information - about food or predators, for example. This also applies to navigation.

"In a travelling group, such as a migrating flock of birds, there will often be differences in experience, especially if of different ages have travelled the route a different number of times. Simulations of flocks suggest that only a minority need to know the way to guide the flock to its destination, so it is possible that only some of a flock is navigating, and the rest follow.

"This raises the question of whether the 'passengers' in the group learn to navigate for themselves. Simply travelling with others who know the way already, like passengers in a car, could inhibit an individual's route learning, making it harder to travel alone in the future. This has been called a 'passenger/driver' effect."

How did you examine the passenger/driver effect in pigeons?

"We track homing pigeons with mini GPS loggers. Over the past decade scientists have discovered a great deal about how a pigeon learns a route as it becomes more familiar with an area of the landscape.

"In this experiment we compared route learning in two conditions - some pigeons flew alone, whereas others flew together with a trained 'demonstrator' pigeon, which had already learned a route home from that release site.

"After a sequence of 12 flights, we tested the birds on their own. If being a 'passenger' interferes with learning, we would expect the birds trained in pairs to have more erratic routes when they then fly without the 'demonstrator'."

What does your study tells us about how pigeons share/gain information about a route?

"In fact, the birds trained in pairs learned homing routes just as well as if they had flown alone. This shows that a pigeon continues to pay attention to the landscape even if it has another pigeon to follow. The 'demonstrator' pigeons improved their homing routes as well, which was surprising.

"In previous experiments, pigeons with this amount of experience settled into a particular homing route and rarely changed it. So rather than a homing route being strictly transferred from one bird to another, the pairs' routes ended up including new shortcuts that may have been discovered by the less experienced bird."

How might less experienced birds navigating benefit a flock?

"Birds can use a number of different cues to navigate over unfamiliar terrain, including geomagnetism, smells carried by the wind, and the position of the sun (or stars). So a bird over unfamiliar terrain is still likely to have some information to add to the flock's route choice. Theoretically, a flock can improve its navigational accuracy by combining information from as many birds as possible."

What further work is needed to examine route learning behaviour?

"Similar learning processes could be at work in flocks of migratory birds that travel in mixed-experience groups. This can be investigated through long-term tracking studies of wild birds, both species that migrate alone and those that form flocks. As for the , we already have plans to test how learning plays out in larger flocks. In particular, we will test whether a follower learns as quickly as leader, within a large flock."

Explore further: New research explores how pigeons make joint navigational decisions when travelling together

More information: rspb.royalsocietypublishing.org/lookup/doi/10.1098/rspb.2012.2160%20

Related Stories

All birds use the same navigation system

March 19, 2010

How do birds find their way when they fly? Scientists resolved this question a couple of years ago at DESY with the synchrotron radiation source DORIS III, when they discovered structures containing iron in the beaks of homing ...

Pigeon 'backpacks' track flock voting (w/ Video)

April 8, 2010

(PhysOrg.com) -- Pigeon flocks are guided by a flexible system of leadership in which almost every member gets a ‘vote’ but the votes of high-ranking birds carry more weight, a new study has shown.

Birds use right nostril to navigate

February 3, 2011

(PhysOrg.com) -- Pigeons rely mainly on their olfactory sense when they navigate. Young pigeons learn to recognize environmental odours carried by the winds into the loft and to use these odours to find their way home from ...

Recommended for you

Genomes uncover life's early history

August 24, 2015

A University of Manchester scientist is part of a team which has carried out one of the biggest ever analyses of genomes on life of all forms.

Rare nautilus sighted for the first time in three decades

August 25, 2015

In early August, biologist Peter Ward returned from the South Pacific with news that he encountered an old friend, one he hadn't seen in over three decades. The University of Washington professor had seen what he considers ...

Why a mutant rice called Big Grain1 yields such big grains

August 24, 2015

(Phys.org)—Rice is one of the most important staple crops grown by humans—very possibly the most important in history. With 4.3 billion inhabitants, Asia is home to 60 percent of the world's population, so it's unsurprising ...

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.