Racing Pigeons

Questions by Richard Nissen.
Replies by David Higgins – President of the Royal Pigeon Racing Association.

If pigeons are not trained do pigeons roam far from their lofts?
Probably no more than a mile.

Do you think that homing into the loft when it is near by is done using geographical features such as roads and woods.  Just like us knowing our own neighbourhood?
I believe this to be the case.  Young pigeons would not return to their home loft unless they have been allowed to fly out from it and so learn the neighbourhood.

Italian researchers suggest that a sense of smell is important – does this make sense?
This theory is known to pigeon fanciers but is not believed to be correct.

What do you do to train pigeons to home?
Once young pigeons have learned the area around the loft they are taken increasing distances away from the loft and released to fly home, eg 1 miles, 5 miles, 10 miles etc.  This is mostly done in a line of flight for racing.

Is training teaching the pigeon to use “its instinct” to get home from far away?

Once trained can pigeons be set free from anywhere  – I think so?
Racing pigeons are normally kept on the same line of flight and will fly 500 miles in a single day on this basis.  We would not send a pigeon 500 miles in the opposite direction and expect it to return home.

Am I right that on being let go the birds circle and then set off in roughly the right bearing for home?

Am I right that they keep to the rough bearing and make adjustments as they get nearer and nearer the loft. They easily deal with winds?
I believe this to be correct.  In a head wind they fly low down and with a tail wind they will fly high.

I am clear that they use important navigational features such as railways and motorways to help them.
This appears to be the case but is not proven.  It is however known that pigeons released in the south of England flying to the north east of England follow the east coast most of the way.

Can you move a loft?
Pigeon fanciers moving house often take their loft to a new location and pigeons can be settled to that new location but they will often call back at their place of birth. During the wars pigeons were trained to home to mobile lofts but I suspect these were in large areas of open territory.

If so, does it take a lot of time for the pigeons to re-calibrate where the new loft is? Do they need retraining?
If the new location is nearby then retraining may not be necessary but if it is a completely different area then retraining would be necessary. Some fanciers claim to settle birds very quickly but the normal practice would be to wait until they are sitting on youngsters and therefore feel a greater need to remain.

(I note that with honey bees moving the hive by 4 ft makes it impossible for bees to find their way home.  But if you put the hive down in a new location miles away (with the bees inside) they reorganise themselves to forage and return to the new hive)

Do you think that the pigeons use information from the sun to help navigation.
They almost certainly use the sun.  If they cannot locate the position of the sun they are unlikely to home.

Do pigeons fly at night?
Very rarely unless they are very close to home from a long race on a moonlit night.

I note that sun activity and increased radiation and geo-magnetic disturbances interrupt pigeon’s navigation.
Although pigeons are flying faster than they did 50 years ago, returns appear to have decreased since the advent of the mobile phone.

I note that a friend tells me of as story of a homing pigeon landing on a ship in the middle of the bay of Biscay when it had recovered they released it but it kept flying around in close circles until someone realised that they had their powerful radar on.  When they switched it off the bird flew off.

Are their explanations why birds get lost other than through being attacked by predators, or shot?
No sound explanations only mysteries!

Has anyone seen birds use geographical spots such as over a church which they use just like aircraft use navigation beacons as turning points or way marks
A prominent fancier once wrote in a magazine that his birds used a local roundabout as a navigation aid but this was laughed at.

My thinking is that pigeons know where their home loft is and they circle in order to get a clear feel of the direction to go.  They then follow this direction until they get near enough to the loft to recognise home.
I think as was stated earlier they work out a general direction and then make adjustments as they get closer to home.  The direction of flight may depend on the numbers in the flock going to a general area.  There will be a point at which the flock has to break up and good pigeons will have the sense to make the break at the correct time.

I do not think that pigeons can navigate with a plain directional compass, as you need map and know where you are in order to compute a bearing to fly home on.  If a pigeon has no idea where it is released it cannot compute the bearing.  An inclination compass would only tell the pigeon if t was flying towards to equator or away from it.
My theory states that strong magnetic effects will disrupt the way that the birds can ”feel” their way home.
This is believed to be correct.

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