Oh, I know what you are thinking... A pigeon? Really? Where am I going to store the bird seed, right? Not a problem. Birds eat like, well, birds. Not much to do there, but when I recently heard a broadcast from Radiolab’s Lost and Found series, “Pigeons Have Magnets, Right?,” (1) I was spellbound. These amazing little gray, feathered critters are part Rocky Balboa, part Jacques Cousteau – and practically unstoppable.
The story starts with a pigeon aptly named G.I. Joe whose astonishing task in World War II resulted in the saving of 1000 Italian citizens. Packed in a dark box and carted into completely unfamiliar territory, Joe was the last hope to a town on the verge of heavy bombardment but no other means of communication. Astonishingly, when released Joe flew over territory he had never seen before and in record time directly to his home base 20 miles away, effectively stopping the bombing and saving the town. I am thinking maybe we should change the “as straight as a crow flies” to “as a pigeon flies” but maybe I am getting a little off topic...
How could that happen? As humans, if we are carted somewhere without visual landmarks and a good GPS, we are completely lost at our destination. So, how do these bird brains do it? That question was the heart of this story.
Some speculation was that these feathered dynamos have super-sensitive hearing or sense of smell, but there is a growing interest that pigeons use the earth’s magnetic fields to “see” and map out where they are and where they want to go. The main theory is that birds possess special magnetic receptors some place in their heads. However, there is more recent data that points to some ability of the hippocampus, which has no known magnetic receptors. The problem is that there is either insufficient or conflicting data to figure out how exactly that uncannily precise homing feature works, so the story is still somewhat of a mystery.
So the next time you see a pigeon and start to get annoyed, stop a minute. No bird brain there. Watch their grace and pre-planned mission as they fly off. If you listen carefully, you almost hear Greek composer Vangelis’ Chariots of Fire... Fly, Joe, fly.