Pigeons use mental map to navigate
Washington:26:07:2013:O B Bureau: Homing pigeons fly off from an unknown place in unfamiliar territory and still manage to find their way home using a mental map, a new study has revealed.Despite intensive research, it is not yet definitively clear where this unusual gift comes from.All we know is that homing pigeons and migratory birds determine their flight direction with the help of the Earth’s magnetic field, the stars and the position of the sun.Research proposes two approaches to explain how homing pigeons can find their home loft when released from an unfamiliar place. The first version assumes that pigeons compare the coordinates of their current location with those of the home loft and then systematically reduce the difference between the two until they have brought the two points together. If this version is accurate, it would mean that pigeons navigate like flying robots.The second version accords the pigeons a spatial understanding and “knowledge” of their position in space relative to their home loft. This would presuppose a type of mental map in their brain and thus cognitive capabilities. Up until now, there has not been any clear evidence to support the two navigation variants proposed. For their experiments, Nicole Blaser, a doctoral student in biology at the University of Zurich and her colleagues fitted homing pigeons with miniature GPS loggers in order to monitor the birds’ flight paths. Blaser concluded that pigeons can determine their location and their direction of flight relative to the target and can choose between several targets. The study is published in the Journal of Experimental Biology.