The fascinating question of how homing pigeons navigate so successfully has been raised again by the failure of 219 birds to get safely back to Scotland after a mass release at the weekend.
Only 13 of the original release at Thirsk on the plain of York on Saturday returned to Galashiels, causing a fresh crop of headlines about the supposed ‘Bermuda Triangle for birds’ along the line of the A1M motorway between North Yorkshire, the Pennine spine and Consett in county Durham.
This is not as freaky as it sounds. The mass of theory about pigeon (and other bird) navigation has long recognised the fact that there appear to be small areas where the system goes hopelessly wrong. Here’s an exchange, for instance, on NBC’s Today programme in the United States as long ago as 1988.
Robert Bazell, science correspondent:
One of the main systems is magnetism, but it turns out that there are places on the earth that are like little Bermuda Triangles, if a pigeon goes there it gets completely lost, can never find its way home.
Bob Costas, anchor:
And apart from this remarkable ability, they’re really kind of dumb, huh?
Oh they’re really stupid except they sure can find home.
Except these 219 couldn’t and most of them, presumably, are pecking about at the ample grain in the vast fields which lie between the Yorkshire Dales and the North York Moors. Where they are not alone. Keith Simpson, of the East Cleveland federation of pigeon fanciers, says that hundreds of others have failed to clear the area, with some enthusiasts losing half their birds.
When they fly down to the Thirsk,Wetherby and Consett area we call it the Bermuda Triangle because something always seems to happen.I won’t be racing there again.
This summer’s endlessly wet weather has been raised as a possible reason for making the problem worse, but the mixture of possible aids to the birds’ navigation from magnetism to the position and condition of the sun, makes diagnosis extremely tricky. Solar flares, Menwith Hill’s radomes and the whereabouts of raptors which may chase, kill or just terrify pigeons, are all being considered.Wendy Jeffries, president of the Thirsk Social Flying Club, says:
I just don’t know what it is down to. The weather wasn’t too bad around here on Saturday. It has been an atrocious year. I am down to ten young birds out of 29 and the people I have talked to are the same.
If you find a racing pigeon which appears lost, check out the correct procedure for returning it on the Northern Homing Union website here. Sugared water and corn are recommended for temporary feeding.
[homing pigeons via Shutterstock]