How Pigeons Navigate Using Their Right Nostril

pigeonPhoto: SriMesh

Pigeons are considered to be the most intelligent birds. They have lived with humans for thousands of years and incredibly, have adapted to various significant roles ranging from messengers, pets, symbols of god and even war heroes.

An interesting fact about pigeons is that even if they are released thousands of miles away from their home, they will return back to their roost. So, what is it that makes them navigate so accurately? Do they follow road signs or do they navigate by use of the earth’s magnetic field? Let us find out.

Pigeons flyingPhoto: Keven Law

According to a study published recently, it was discovered that a pigeon’s right nostril plays an important role in its navigation process. In fact, using the right nostril is much more effective than using the left one. This theory was derived as a result of an experiment by Anna Gagliardo from the University of Pisa, Italy, and Martin Wikelski from the Max Planck Institute for Ornithology in Radolfzell, Germany.

A flock of 31 pigeons were selected that had been hand-raised in Pisa, Italy. All were equipped with small GPS data loggers on their backs. Scientists also inserted small, rubbery plugs into either of their nostrils. Some had plugs inserted into their left and some into their right nostril. When these pigeons were released 42 km away from their home, they managed to come back safely.But who made it first?

Homing pigeonPhoto: Merops

Who won the race and how?
Based on the GPS data collection, it turned out that the pigeons with plugs in their left nostril won the race, whereas those with plugs in their right nostril stopped more often and had a hard time to get back quickly. “We suppose that these birds had to stop to gather additional information about their surroundings because they could not navigate by their olfactory sense,” says Anna Gagliardo.

This finding suggests that pigeons rely mainly on their distinctive olfactory sense and their ability to recognize odors when they navigate. Like humans, pigeons are able to smell better with their right nostril. However, it is yet to study how their brains process these asymmetric sensory perceptions.

Speaking about the research, scientist Anna Gagliardo adds: “This behavior not only indicates that an asymmetry exists in the perception and processing of odors between the left and the right olfactory system; it also shows that the right nostril apparently plays an important role in processing olfactory information in the left hemisphere that is useful for navigation.”