Homing pigeons use the Earth’s magnetic field
Homing pigeons have built in ‘satnav’ that uses Earth’s magnetic field to pinpoint position and help them find their way home, according to a study. Scientists have suspected for years that birds possess the ability to use the Earth’s magnetic field for their navigation, although it has never been proved beyond doubt.
Now researchers from the University of Auckland in New Zealand believe they have solved the mystery by showing that the routes the birds take to come back follow magnetic waves around the Earth.
They have discovered that like global positioning technology, they first determine where they are before heading off for home.
One of the quirks of homing pigeons is that they often head off in totally the wrong direction when initially finding their way home before making a correction.
Now the team, who published their findings in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B, have discovered that the initial flight path involves finding the magnetic waves which can then be used to find their way home.
They reviewed a number of studies in Germany that saw as many 150 birds returning to three lofts near Frankfurt.
Dr Cordula Mora and her colleagues concluded that “respond to the Earth’s magnetic field at the release site”, calculate their position using the fields and then calculate their way home.
“Our results imply that pigeons use the earth’s magnetic field for determining their position at the release site before laying a course for home,” she said.
The study extends previous research that suggested that magnetic particles in the beaks of the birds act like compasses.
They react to the Earth’s external magnetic field in a very sensitive and specific manner, so they can deduce location, the team believes.
The researchers further believe that this ability is not unique to homing pigeons and could be universal among all birds and may also be present in other animals influenced by the Earth’s magnetic field.