The Incredible Winged Navigators

By Bebe Louderback

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    How does a homing pigeon fly distances up to 1,000 miles (1600 km) from home and then return to its own loft? This mystery has puzzled man since ancient times. Some trainers believe that homing pigeons have a high sensitivity to the magnetic field of the earth. Before releasing a flock of pigeons, a trainer may check the force of the earth’s magnetic currents with a special instrument called a magnetometer. However, experiments have been done that seem to disprove this theory. There is much evidence that the pigeon’s homing instinct is based on celestial clues and that the birds use the sun or stars to provide navigational direction. In all the animal kingdom probably no instinct is more remarkable and less understood by man than the homing pigeon’s ability to return to its home.

    Although many pigeon species are located throughout most parts of the world, the best known is the rock pigeon, or Columba livia, from which the fancy, domestic homing pigeons are derived. These pigeons, often called homers, have small heads, short necks, stout bodies, short legs, and sleek plumage. They have bluish gray heads and necks, black markings on their wings, white hindquarters, purplish breasts, and bluish abdomens. Listen closely to them, and you will hear their gentle cooing call.

    Anyone who raises pigeons as a hobby is called a pigeon fancier. The beginner who purchases his first pair of pigeons and builds his first pigeon loft has chosen an enjoyable hobby. He will get plenty of help, advice, and encouragement from other pigeon fanciers in his area.

    While there are different systems for training homers, usually they are released as a flock, or kit, from home once or twice a day during early training. They fly together and stay within a few miles of home. Upon returning, they trap themselves in their loft through a one-way wire door. After learning the surrounding area well, they are taken farther and farther away from home, each time being released to find their way back. The older, more experienced birds guide and teach the young.

    If accidentally shot by hunters or attacked by hawks, a homing pigeon’s plight can be reported to its owner through band identification. Leg banding is done when a pigeon is about seven days old. The band shows the year hatched, initials of the organization issuing the band, the pigeon’s size, and its serial number. Once trained, a pigeon may be used for homing, either as a carrier of messages or, most often, in the sport of pigeon racing.

    As carriers of secret messages, homing pigeons for centuries have proven their great value during times of war. The United States Army during World War II parachuted nearly 17,000 pigeons to Allied troops fighting behind enemy lines in enemy-occupied Europe. Out of these, 2,000 returned safely. Home base usually was aboard a large aircraft carrier. Many airmen owe their lives to the SOS messages carried by pigeons released when their aircraft crash-landed into the sea.

    Someday perhaps you will see silvery birds soaring skyward. They will bank left, make one or two large circles, then dart right and fly a straight course, as if pulled suddenly onto an invisible track. It is a sight you will always remember—pigeons on the way home.

    Illustrated by Doug Roy