Olfaction and the homing ability of pigeons in the southeastern United States

V P Bingman, S Benvenuti
Journal of Experimental Zoology 1996 October 15, 276 (3): 186-92
The importance of atmospheric odors for homing pigeon navigation was tested using birds from a loft located in Savannah, GA, in the southeastern United States. When released from a familiar training site, control pigeons and pigeons given intranasal injections of zinc sulfate to produce anosmia both displayed good homeward orientation and homed quickly. When released from three unfamiliar release sites, in contrast, control birds tended to orient southeast, while zinc sulfate-treated birds were more likely to fly northwest. More importantly, while the majority of control pigeons returned to the home loft, few of the zinc sulfate-treated birds returned. The good performance of both groups from the familiar site indicates that zinc sulfate treatment does not impair the general motor ability or motivation of homing pigeons. Therefore, the observed impairment in homing success of the zinc sulfate-treated pigeons from the unfamiliar locations presumably reflects an impaired ability to use atmospheric odors to navigate home. As such, the data support the hypothesis that successful homing pigeon navigation is based on the perception of atmospheric odors and that olfactory navigation is the primary mechanism used by pigeons over a broad range of geographic areas to approximate their relative position with respect to home from unfamiliar locations.

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