Scientists Read Pigeons' Brains For The Secrets Of Their Navigation

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According to data recorders strapped to pigeons' heads, pigeon migration may not be too different from human navigation: the birds use landmarks to navigate, they pay more attention when in cities, and they even recognize other pigeon colonies.

In their study, the University of Zurich team hooked pigeons up with in-flight electroencephalographs (EEG) and GPS trackers. The result was data on how pigeons think while they are trying to navigate their migratory path.

Not only does the study confirm that pigeons keep an eye on landmarks while migrating, it also shows that pigeons perk up and pay more attention when they are in changing terrain, like flying through cities or over highways. Brain activity lulls a bit when they are flying over featureless ocean, for example.


The study produced a few at-first-unexplained blips: the pigeons seemed to perk up over two nondescript sites in their migratory path. On further inspection, the science team found that these sites were home to other pigeon colonies, and the birds were responding to the presence of other birds in these areas. This might be the pigeon equivalent of a human navigator perking up when she sees a Starbucks in the distance, noticing a human presence in an otherwise solitary trip.

The team is moving on to other animals next, to see what is going through their minds when they go about their daily business. They could be thinking of anything from where to find breakfast to "why am I wearing this stupid EEG helmet?" Or maybe they are plotting their escape from our oppressive animal experiments...

Pigeon 'black box' offers clues to navigation [via New Scientist]

(Image: Empire State Pigeon, from ZeroOne)