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Orientation and Homing Ability - (Chapter 7)...
Author: Guy BarrettTitle: Orientation and Homing Ability - (Chapter 7)
Date: 2002-11-09 22:58:13Uploaded by: webmaster
It would be easy to explain the ability of a racing pigeon to find its way home from a point hundreds of miles away by attributing it simply to instinct. This word 'instinct' is a very convenient one by which to explain the marvellous behaviour of animals and birds.

The young swallow is born with an instinctive urge to migrate, and not only does it 'know' that it must migrate, it is also aware of which way, and where it must go. The young birds leave these shores for the warmer climate of Africa even before their parents. The young salmon (the salmon parr) travels instinctively downriver to the sea. A year or two later, it returns as a 'grilse' to the same river in which it was born, even though it has been many hundreds of miles away whilst in the sea, and subject to the effects of tides and currents. How, then, is this fish able to tell that it is swimming back up the same river that it left two years ago?

We explain these phenomena by saying. 'They do it by instinct'. These instincts are inherent in all members of a species. All swallows migrate, all salmon go down to the sea. But, and here is the heart of the matter, all racing pigeons cannot find their way home, some are lost. If the ability to 'home' were simply an instinct implanted in them all at birth, every pigeon would be able to home from any distance (barring accidents) up to the limit of its endurance. The pigeon’s homing ability would not be affected by the weather conditions prevailing during the journey, not would it be necessary to train it over gradually increasing distances.

The racing pigeon, in common with many other birds and fish, certainly has a sense of direction. We train our birds and race them from points in the same direction. The birds learn to set off for home in, for example, a northwesterly direction - and I believe that they find this direction by using the sun.

If the sun is shining, trained pigeons will set off immediately for home. If the sky is overcast, they will fly round the liberation point, possibly for hours, before leaving. In these conditions they do not appear to know which way to go, and quite possibly may leave in the wrong direction. Therefore the worst days for racing are those on which there are two layers of clouds - one above the other. Even though a break may appear in one layer, the sun can never be seen, as this break is always covered by the layer of clouds above or below.

In order to use the sun as a compass, we must know the time of day. Likewise a pigeon must have a sense of time. The early morning sun is very different from the evening sun. The higher it is in the sky, the nearer it is to a southerly direction (in the northern hemisphere) and so on.

After having considered this argument, the reader will immediately say, “It is all very well to say that we must liberate only when the sun is shining, but what happens if the sun goes in after the birds have stetted on their way home?”. Pigeons are very sensitive to the wind. They always land against the wind as does an aeroplane and, once having got their bearing, they can maintain course by the wind, should the sun happen to go in. For instance, if a pigeon flies in a northerly direction in a west wind, the wind blows on its left side, so that, having started on its journey, it can maintain direction, even if the sun goes behind the clouds, providing that the wind direction remains constant.

This reasoning explains why it is we always experience such bad races on days when there is very little sun, and a depression in the centre of the United Kingdom causing the wind to blow from the south-west in the south, and from the north-east in the north, so that when the birds reach the area where the direction of the wind changes and where there is also no sun, they too may change direction and become lost.

Pigeons have extremely keen eyesight - far superior to our own. Much of a pigeon’s head is occupied by the eyes, which are spherical and extremely large in proportion to the size of the head when compared with those of other birds. Since its eyes are on each side, the pigeon can see the full 360 degrees round its head, whereas we, having both our eyes in front, can only see a relatively small angle without turning our head. The horizon to a pigeon in flight must appeal as a circle and this, together with its splendid eyesight, must assist tremendously in navigating the way home.

The pigeon has a most astonishing memory. I have been told of a bird returning to its owner five years after it had been lost in a race from France. When it went missing, the bird was four years old and even after so long a time, it still remembered its home as a nine year old and even flew straight to its old nest-box on arrival.

If pigeons are capable of remembering their home after so long a period away, it is not unreasonable to assume that they are able to remember landmarks, and recognise them on their next journey homewards. That this is indeed the case, is amply illustrated if we consider the results of the races from France immediately after the Second World War.

As soon as the war was over, fanciers were keen to recommence racing and particularly to organise races from France. These first races from the Continent were all bad races from the point of view of the numbers of birds returned. In fact in one race from Bordeaux only about 2½ per cent reached home safely.

These disasters occurred because none of the birds had flown from France before. Nowadays, probably a third of the birds in a race from a distance of 500 miles will have been to the same race point the previous year. These birds remember the landmarks from their former trips and thus are able to lead the way over the first part of the journey.

Experienced pigeons learn to 'strike' for home in a certain direction. Every time they are trained or raced, home lies on this same compass-bearing. Therefore the fancier must be careful not to send his good birds to a race point lying on a different line from that normally flown - there is no easier way to lose a good pigeon. If it has been taught to strike for home in a north-westerly direction, that is the way it will go, and so, should the race point be 100 miles west of its usual route, the bird will become hopelessly lost.

Poor birds are not so seriously affected as they will follow the pack anyway. But the champion says to himself, “I know which way to go”, and he goes, regardless of what the rest of the competing pigeons do. For just the same reasons, I would not switch a bird from the 'north road' to the 'south road'. Occasionally one hears of a bird which has flown 500 miles north and south, but we do not hear of the thousands of birds which are lost when they are switched from one route to the other.

Sometimes my own Federation has changed the route from south-east to south-west and then, a year or two later, changed it back again. The result is always the same: the winners of the previous seasons are either lost or come home the morning after the race.

If clubs wish to alter the route, they should change at the beginning of the Young Bird programme, not (as is always the case) at the start of the season. I remember discussing with another fancier a race which had been arranged by his club from a point way off their usual route. “I would not send’, I said, but my friend replied that good pigeons would always come back whatever the race point. Unlike me he had not suffered the consequences of a changed route. I saw him again much later and he had obviously forgotten my previous remarks. He said he could not understand why this same race had been arranged again, that all the race points should be in one direction, and that very many members would not send, as they had lost their best birds the previous year.

I have tried to show that the trained and experienced racing pigeon does not find its way home by instinct but that it has a definite homing ability, which we can develop by careful training over gradually increased distances. When a pigeon has been trained, it will head for home as if by instinct, providing that it cam see where the sun lies, and will keep on course by the wind, should the sun disappear temporarily behind the clouds. Then when it reaches the vicinity of home, it will recognise landmarks and horizons, and so will be able to correct its course, as necessary, to bring it to the loft.

It is interesting to note that sometimes a bird will learn a way home which is not the straight way. It may come out of the north from a race point to the south, and such a bird will often continue to fly that way, because that is the route it knows. But by careful training, it must be taught the more direct line for home if it is to have a chance of winning.

I am aware that many older fanciers will not agree with the theories put forward in this chapter, but it must be understood that these apply to pigeons trained and raced “on a line”. It is true that they do not explain some of the remarkable flights recorded, in which birds have found their way home to the loft where they were born from that of a new owner who has been trying to settle them. In some cases, these journeys have been well over a hundred miles, and often the pigeon has had no previous knowledge of the route. Indeed occasionally, it has not even had any training.

How pigeons perform these feats we do not know. In a way, I hope that we never find out, for the fact that we do not understand this wonderful gift of the racing pigeon to find its way home is one of the things which makes the sport so fascinating. But how enlightening it would be to know where one of our favourites has been, when he returns home weeks, or even months, after a hard race.

Used with permisson. © RPRA.

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