When bothered by a thorn in its foot or urged on by the need for a meal or nap, a dog or cat will head for home with the same persistence as that of a horse returning to its stable after a busy day on the range. This urge, or homing instinct, is well recognized in domesticated animals such as cows, sheep, and even pigs. And the desire and ability of a homing pigeon to return to its loft is legendary.
But did you ever stop to think that some of the smaller undomesticated creatures of the earth may be equally anxious to get home again? And because of their very smallness, their journeys may be very arduous ones. An experiment conducted by Martin Thornhill of England with a common toad is a case in point. First, Thornhill took the toad from its favorite lily pad at the side of his garden pool and placed it in a hedge about fifty yards away. Shortly afterward the toad was back on its lily pad. He then carried the toad one-fourth mile to a friend’s garden. Within a week it had returned. Marking it with a harmless red paint spot, he transported it a mile distant. In less than ten days the toad had returned. His last experiment was to deposit it by a stream three miles away. The persistent amphibian doggedly hopped across country and through town to settle itself many days later on its favorite lily pad.
Butterflies, too, have homecomings. These little beauties must locate homes where there is a plentiful supply of their food. With the exception of the monarch and a few others, most never venture very far from their birthplaces. The monarchs, however, travel long distances—some across the ocean, some to the south; but in the spring their homing itch will send them winging their way back to where they started from.
Probably the hardest working little home lovers are honeybees. Inhabiting man-made hives, or those they have built in hollow trees, caves, or holes in rocks, they find flowers that they like, sip the nectar until their honey bags are filled, then carry it home for use by the whole colony. And although they may have gone from flower to flower for a great distance, they set their course to arrive home by the shortest, most direct route.
Snails can also cover considerable ground on a homing trip. Should they be removed from a backyard, they will make every effort to return, climbing over and around many obstacles in the process. Desert tortoises and crabs, too, are known to demonstrate this homing instinct. Crabs taken as far as sixty miles away from their original shelter have successfully found their way back home again.
Nor is this homing instinct confined to those who live on the surface of the earth; it is shared as well by some underwater creatures. The Pacific salmon, which for the first year of its life inhabits freshwater streams, later travels to the ocean and stays there for several years. Then, to lay its eggs, a salmon will leap through rapids, up waterfalls, and over dams in order to get back to the freshwater stream that was its first home.