How Homing Pigeons Find Their Way Home

A new theory explains why homing pigeons are so good at navigating back to their nests--and why sometimes they are not.

Homing Pigeon
Homing pigeons may derive their impeccable navigation skills from their keen sense of low-frequency hearing.Andreas Trepte via Wikimedia

Homing pigeons have long blown the minds of us mere mammals with their remarkable ability to find their way home, even across huge and disorienting distances. This ability to navigate to their nests (or lofts, as their habitats are often known) with astounding accuracy has never really been understood, but a new theory may have just solved the mystery. If a U.S. Geological Survey geologist is correct, homing pigeons use low-frequency sound waves that emanate from just about everything to mentally map their environments and navigate back to their lofts.

This ability stems from the fact that birds can hear at far lower frequencies than humans can, down to about 0.1 Hertz. These kinds of waves emanate from the Earth itself--from the oceans really, but also up through the crust and the Earth's topography and even in the atmosphere. USGS geologist John Hagstrum, who had taken up the mystery of homing pigeon navigation some years ago, was tipped off that sounds waves might be responsible for pigeons' innate navigation abilities when he noticed that in European pigeon races the birds tended to go astray when the now-retired supersonic Concord jet airliner was in the vicinity. It seemed the Concord's sonic boom was affecting the pigeons' abilities to orient themselves toward their home lofts.

The idea is that pigeons use these low-frequency infrasound waves to generate acoustic maps of their surroundings, and that's how they find home even when they are released miles from where they dwell. The theory not only explains how pigeons make their way home almost every time, but why they sometimes get lost (high winds, supersonic jets, and various other phenomena can disrupt these infrasound waves, disorienting the birds and setting them on a false course for home). So while it's by no means conclusive, this new theory seems at first glance a very tidy way of explaining a mystery that has baffled avian biologists for generations.