Homing pigeons (Columba livia) have been prized for their navigational abilities for thousands of years. They’ve served as messengers during war, as a means of long-distance communication, and as prized athletes in international races. (Source)

Do all homing pigeons just pick a direction, and fly "straight" home, or do they all follow certain "tunnels" or "roads" to get closer to their home area, before heading home? (similar to cars getting on a highway between two regions)

Does any information about that exist? I'd be interested to know if pigeons released in the same area (with different target locations in one common direction) tend to do follow the same paths, or if it's just a chaotic crisscross.

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    $\begingroup$ Some time ago I saw a TV programme (probably on BBC in the UK) that claimed they follow literal highways, i.e. they mostly navigate by flying above roads and remembering which intersection to turn off at. (But I've no idea how clearly established this is, given that my reference is a TV programme.) $\endgroup$
    – N. Virgo
    Mar 25, 2016 at 2:44
  • $\begingroup$ I would guess visual cues alone would not be enough, as pigeons are rarely transported in an airplane while being able to look out the window. Most of the time they are transported on the ground to the place they have to return home from. $\endgroup$
    – vsz
    Mar 25, 2016 at 7:07
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    $\begingroup$ @Nathaniel - Homing pigeons do prefer to navigate along roads, railroads, and other long, straight landmarks, according to Mann et al., 2014 and Lipp et al., 2004 $\endgroup$
    – iayork
    Mar 25, 2016 at 9:55

2 Answers 2


They have mental maps of landmarks, which they use as well as "compass" cues:

... experienced birds can accurately complete their memorized routes by using landmarks alone. Nevertheless, we also find that route following is often consistently offset in the expected compass direction, faithfully reproducing the shape of the track, but in parallel.

--Pigeons combine compass and landmark guidance in familiar route navigation

Landmarks are more important than compass cues in general, and pigeons develop their own landmark maps:

we show that homing pigeons (Columba livia) not only come to rely on highly stereotyped yet surprisingly inefficient routes within the local area but are attracted directly back to their individually preferred routes even when released from novel sites off-route. This precise route loyalty demonstrates a reliance on familiar landmarks throughout the flight, which was unexpected under current models of avian navigation.

--Familiar route loyalty implies visual pilotage in the homing pigeon

That means that different birds do use different routes:

Here, we demonstrate that birds develop highly stereotyped yet individually distinctive routes over the landscape, which remain substantially inefficient.

--Homing pigeons develop local route stereotypy

In fact the same bird might use different routes over time as it learns new landmarks:

a wide intraindividual variability was observed in repeated tosses at the same site; some pigeons remained faithful to the first route, whereas other birds tried successive new routes which, in most cases, were significantly shorter than previous ones. This result indicates that pigeons try, and are actually able, to improve their performance in subsequent releases from the same site.

--Pigeon homing: The influence of topographical features in successive releases at the same site

  • $\begingroup$ +1 Great answer. To add to this, homing pigeons are also able to sense magnetic fields (magnetoreception), such as that of earth, to assist them in orientation and navigation: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Magnetoreception $\endgroup$
    – CDB
    Mar 24, 2016 at 17:59
  • $\begingroup$ Also solar cues, stars, smell, and (according to at least one group of researchers) gravitational anomalies; and they are able to determine when one of these is being messed with and deprecate the unreliable information. $\endgroup$
    – iayork
    Mar 24, 2016 at 19:20
  • $\begingroup$ They use the Earths magnetic field to navigate. <References Mora C. V., Davison C. V., Wild J. M. & Walker M. M. Nature, 432. 508 - 511 (2004). | Article | PubMed | ISI | ChemPort |> $\endgroup$ Mar 24, 2016 at 21:41

I study sharks and I have found that several things have electroreceptors like cockroaches, bees, platypus and even pigeons. On top of that. Mammals have what is known as magnetite crystals in the brain. A compass works because it is a weaker magnet than that of the earths magnetic field and aligns with the stronger field. I have a feeling that pigeons use a combination of all of this as well as memory of landmarks and such but I am unsure. I study sharks

https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Magnetoreception#In_homing_pigeons http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC49775/


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