I am domiciled near a pigeon loft: often I see its inhabitants wheeling over my garden and I suspect them to be of the homing variety. Indeed, on one occasion I was delayed on my way to the station while a whole squadron were released from their temporary wicker homes on the road in front of me.
As you will know, the homing pigeon (along with its feral counterpart) is derived from the rock dove. Why does the word “dove” have such a good press relative to the word pigeon? There is no specific difference between the two, but very few pigeons are released to celebrate a couple’s nuptials or a nation’s hopes for peace.
One feels that a rock dove would struggle to get (and, indeed, remain) airborne. It has been given a rather oxymoronic name (worse even than the wood pigeon – though I have high hopes for the aerodynamic possibilities of a balsa wood pigeon), and would clearly be beaten by paper dove.
People, usually referred to as scientists, do seem endlessly fascinated by pigeons’ homing ability. It has been known for many years that they can sense the Earth’s magnetic field – so will always know where north lies (apparently, looking at moss on trees is no help at all). More recently it has been discovered that they also follow major roads. Let’s face it, would you use a compass to find the north if you could just follow the A1 (certainly, this latter strategy enabled me to commute between Newcastle and London for many years without every resorting to a compass). One assumes this must be a recent adaptation – or maybe the Nazca lines are not an alien landing strip, but an alien navigational aid for South American pigeons. That’s right, you heard it here first, aliens are pigeon fanciers.
However, this week we discover that members of Family Columbidae (natch) have yet another string to their navigational bow. It seems our feathered fiends (for the avoidance of doubt, this is not a typo – but a reflection on their destruction of my 2010 chard crop) use their sense of smell to find their way home. Well, apparently only their right nostril is used – the left one is entirely useless navigationally. Italian researchers found that blocking a bird’s right nostril (but not the left) adversely affects its ability to find its way. I’ve heard the phrase “following your nose” many times (many, many times – yes, the spirit of Lady Counterblast lives on in this blog) but this is the first time (other than the special case of fictional reindeer) where it has been suggested that the naris actually confers some navigational benefit.