Pigeon power


Everyone knows about pigeons. Or at least they think they do. If you live in a city, you've seen them flocking in parks, posing on statues, fluttering above busy streets. In the country, they strut along barn roofs, scratch in fields, and perform amazing aerial feats to elude hawks and other predators. Other pigeons loiter at suburban bird feeders.

Wherever they live, pigeons don't attract much attention. They don't get much respect, either, but maybe they should. Did you know that:

*Pigeons see, hear, and feel things that humans cannot.

*They have an astonishing ability to find their way home across hundreds of miles. (They're so good at this, in fact, that people race them.)

*One pigeon is credited with saving the lives of hundreds of Allied soldiers in World War II. (See story on page 19.)

*Trained pigeons were found to be twice as effective as human helicopter crews in spotting simulated shipwreck victims at sea.

"People tend to think of pigeons as ordinary birds," says pigeon expert Charles Walcott, "but they happen to live in a very different sensory world from us." Dr. Walcott is a professor of neurobiology and behavior at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y. He's also the former director of Cornell's Laboratory of Ornithology (that's the study of birds).

Pigeons can hear very low-frequency sounds that are too low for humans to hear. They are also very good at detecting vibrations. (They feel them through their feet.)

Pigeons have internal barometers and built-in compasses. The birds are sensitive to changes in air pressure and can detect the earth's magnetic field.

But even more remarkable is "pigeon vision." Humans can see all the colors of the rainbow: red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, violet. But pigeons see more. They can detect light beyond violet, called ultraviolet.

Pigeons can also see polarized light. Polarized light consists of light waves that vibrate in only one direction. (In ordinary light, light waves vibrate in many different directions.)

US Navy's 'rescue pigeons'

"Pigeons must see very interesting things through these different sensory windows on the world," Walcott says. But how does it help pigeons to be able to see this way? No one knows.

In 1978, the United States Navy began Project Sea Hunt. In it, pigeons were trained to peck an "alert" button whenever they spotted orange, red, or yellow items in the water (these are standard life-jacket colors). Researchers already knew of pigeons' "superior search rate capacity" from other tests, says a Navy report.

Three trained pigeons rode in a plexiglass bubble under a helicopter. The pigeons pecked a button if they saw something the right color. The button signaled the pilot.

In a series of tests off Hawaii, "rescue pigeons" spotted the life-jacket targets on the first pass 90 percent of the time. The figure for human crews was 38 percent. Despite this, the program was dropped in 1983.

Rock doves, as ornithologists call pigeons, were not native to the US originally. The pigeons you see are descended from birds that escaped from flocks being raised for food. Rock doves originally lived along cliffs from India to Scotland. They were first domesticated about 5,000 years ago in the Mideast.

Hundreds of pigeon breeds exist today. Some fancy-looking ones are judged in shows. Others are fancy-flying types. "Rollers" and "tipplers" are bred to somersault through the air. Homing pigeons race each other over long distances.

Top birds cost thousands

The ability of a pigeon to find its way back to its nest has fascinated people for centuries. All pigeons have this talent, but the trait is especially well developed in breeds of homing pigeons. These pigeons are bred for their speed, endurance, and homing instinct. Over the centuries, homing pigeons have been developed in China, Belgium, Spain, the Middle East, Great Britain, and the US. A top racing bird can cost thousands of dollars.

Pigeon racing is still popular. Some 11,000 people race pigeons in America today. Among the celebrity pigeon racers are actors Paul Newman and Clint Eastwood, and former heavyweight boxing champion George Foreman. Walt Disney raised pigeons. So did Charles Darwin. The American Racing Pigeon Union was established in 1910.

Pigeons' ability to find their way home has been used since ancient times as a way to send messages. A traveler would take pigeons from a pigeon roost established for this purpose. When he wanted to send a message, he would write it on a slip of paper and attach it to the pigeon's leg. When the bird was released, it would fly home with the message.

This "homing" ability probably has to do with pigeons' special senses. Also, pigeons are very "site reliant." They like to stay home. Recent studies at Cornell found that at least 75 percent of a typical pigeon flock will stay in one spot. That figure may be 100 percent for flocks in cities.

Pigeons want to go home. How do they know where home is?

Steering by magnetic field

Pigeons probably use the sun as their compass by day. At night, they may rely on the earth's magnetic field to point the way.

When pigeons are put in areas where the earth's magnetic field is disturbed (these are known as "magnetic anomalies"), the birds act disoriented. They can't seem to figure out which way to go.

Pigeons may use their sense of smell, too. Or they may orient themselves by using nearby lakes and hills - or skyscrapers.

Pigeon races for "rookies" (birds under a year old) may be 100 to 300 miles long. Older birds will race 500 to 600 miles. Pigeons average 45 to 60 miles per hour in flight, though one bird named Quick Draw averaged 94 miles per hour in a 420-mile race in 1997. (He had a tail wind.)

A pigeon race begins with the birds' getting a special numbered rubber ring, called a countermark, which is slipped onto one leg. (Racing pigeons also wear a metal identification band on their other leg.) The birds are then loaded onto a truck and driven to the release site, miles away.

Before the birds are released, owners set and start their race clocks. The clocks are then sealed to prevent tampering.

When the birds arrive at their home loft, the owner takes off the countermark and puts it in a capsule. He drops the capsule into a hole in the top of the clock and turns a large key. The time is recorded on a piece of paper.

At the end of the race, officials open the clocks and read the times. The distance to each racer's loft from the release site has been predetermined. Using the time and the exact distance traveled, officials determine each bird's speed in terms of yards per minute. The fastest bird wins.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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