How do Carrier Pigeons Work?

Greeks used homing pigeons to broadcast Olympics results?

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Our ancient texts are full of instances where pigeons carried letters from one place to another. Pigeons were a reliable source to send messages as pigeons are intelligent and can exactly remember the way to their home. The pigeons, which were used to send messages, were called homing pigeons or carrier pigeons. 

According to research, the success rate of carrier pigeons in delivering messages was about 95% during the first world war. Approximately, 500,000 pigeons delivered messages between countries during the war. They could successfully deliver the messages attached to their homing devices by flying high and avoiding the gunfire and shrapnel, most of the time. In fact, these birds were also honored with war medals to salute their exceptional service. 

 As per records, homing pigeons can travel as far as 1100 kilometers with speeds ranging from 50 kilometers per hour to 90 kilometers per hour. 

This brings us to the important question

How do carrier pigeons work? 

Pigeons have the natural ability to find their way back home. In spite of many scientific studies, there are no concrete proofs about how they do this. Researchers state that pigeons have an internal compass and mapping system in their brains, which helps them to map their way to the home loft from a faraway destination. 

Here are some theories about how carrier pigeons come back home from as far as 1100 kilometers. 

  • Position and Angle of the Sun – Pigeons have an internal compass mechanism that relies on the position of the sun. Depending on the angle of the sun and its position during the day, the pigeon determines the direction of the flight. 
  • Earth’s Magnetic Fields – Pigeons can detect the earth’s magnetic fields due to the presence of iron particles in their beaks. They can easily sense the slight variations in the magnetic fields and create a mapping system based on the magnetic fields of a place and find their way back home. 
  • Low-Frequency Infrasounds – These sounds are of very low frequency and are way below the audible range for humans. Pigeons can hear the sounds with frequencies as low as 0.05 hertz.  and make a map to fly back home. Low-frequency sounds are emitted by oceans, seas, and other natural features. 
  • Smells Pigeons have an extraordinary sense of smell. They create odor maps based on the smells emanating from different areas and the atmospheric gases of the place. They use this map to navigate over long distances. 
  • Visual Cues – Once the pigeons are closer to home, they use visual cues such as buildings, highways, and other landmarks to find their loft. 

Pigeons may use one or a combination of these factors to return home from another destination, where they are released. However, homing pigeons have to be trained to ensure they fly back safely. 

Process of Training Homing Pigeons

  1. Setting the Home Loft 

Carrier pigeons carry messages between 2 points – The home loft and the release site. The home loft is the base for these pigeons, where they stay for most of the time. This is where they feed and rest. The home loft should have necessary measures to ensure easy entry of the bird and restrict its exit. 

  1. Regular Practice

Messenger pigeons need regular practice to get used to flying from variable distances. Place your pigeon in a cage and take it to a place, nearly a kilometer away from the base. Release the pigeon and it will fly home. Do this multiple times a week. Once the pigeon is confident, increase the distance to 3 kilometers and repeat the process. Gradually keep on increasing the distance of release until you reach the expected distance. Regular practice helps the birds to build endurance and gain confidence. Pigeons can be trained individually or as a flock. 

Related Read: Do Pigeons Fly at Night?

  1. Incentives 

To encourage pigeons to learn faster, they are given food and water incentives. If the pigeon is used to deliver messages one way, food and water are given at the home loft as a reward. However, if you want to train the pigeon to fly between two locations, you have to stop feeding the bird at the home loft and give it food at the second destination. On the day of delivering the messages, the hungry pigeon will fly to the destination for the reward.  

How Are The  Messages Attached to the Pigeons? 

Pigeons can carry a weight of around 75 grams on their backs. Small backpacks made of plastic or fabric are attached to the pigeon using shoulder straps. These backpacks contain small tubes to place the note with the message to be delivered. 

The birds are physically transported to the destination from where they are released. They used their internal compass and mapping systems to fly back to the home loft and deliver the message. Some carrier pigeons were also trained to fly between two destinations, and carry messages to and fro. 

Though homing pigeons are no longer used to send messages, they are mostly used for racing. They are trained to fly across hundreds of kilometers to win a race. 

Pigeons are one of the oldest domesticated birds on earth. They are intelligent birds, with the Intelligent quotient equivalent to a 3-year-old child. Pigeons can easily fly back to their home loft using the internal compass and mapping systems. Research states that pigeons can memorize as many as 3 different routes, without any confusion.

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