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GPS helps research on pigeon

A new research conducted by scientists at the University of Zurich suggests that in some environments, pigeons instinctively learn to follow major roadways in navigating their flight. The research group headed by Dr. Hans-Peter Lipp used satellite tracking to study the paths pigeons take on homeward-bound journeys.

Miniaturized GPS “flight-loggers,” which pigeons carried on their backs, allowed researchers a clear and reliable picture of the birds’ flight paths. Over three years, the researchers analyzed more than 200 flight paths of 20-80 km in length made by pigeons travelling toward their home loft from numerous release sites located in the general vicinity of Rome, Italy.

They found that, when released from familiar sites, pigeons with homing experience were significantly attracted to highways and a railway track running in the approximate directions home.While when these structures began to veer significantly from the beeline to the loft, some birds tended to break away and head in a more homeward direction. Others followed the highway until a main junction, at which point they followed a valley road in the direction of the loft.

The degree to which the birds appeared to follow roadways was strongest in the early and middle sections of their homeward journeys, but when they approached the loft, the birds appeared to switch strategies and rely more on topographical points as “road map” components The researchers found that, although following roadways in some cases represented significant digressions from the beeline home, in general the early benefit of the roadways in keeping the birds on course seemed to compensate for the added flight distance.