, Volume 96, Issue 2, pp 251–258 | Cite as

Point of decision: when do pigeons decide to head home?

  • Ingo Schiffner
  • Roswitha WiltschkoEmail author
Original Paper


Pigeons released away from their loft usually fly around at the release site for a while before they finally leave. Visual observations had suggested that the moment when the birds decide to head home is associated with a certain change in flying style. To see whether this change is also reflected by GPS-recorded tracks, a group of pigeons equipped with flight recorders was released at two sites about 10 km from their home loft. The initial part of their flight paths was analyzed in order to find objective criteria indicating the point of decision. We selected the highest increase in steadiness as the best estimate for the moment of decision. This criterion allows us to divide the pigeons’ paths in two distinct phases, an initial phase and the homing phase, with the moment of decision, on an average, 2 min after release. The moment of decision marks a change in behavior, with a significant increase in steadiness and flying speed and headings significantly closer to the home direction. The behavior of the individual birds at the two sites was not correlated, suggesting no pronounced individual traits for the length of the initial phase. The behavior during this phase seems to be controlled by flight preparation, exploration, and non-navigational motivations rather than by navigational necessities alone.


GPS-recorder Flight tracks Steadiness of flight Homing pigeons C. livia f. domestica 



Our work was supported by the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (grant to R.W.) and the Freunde und Förderer der J. W. Goethe-Universität Frankfurt am Main. We sincerely thank B. Siegmund and the students A. Kristoff, R. Savanatan, and F. Wicker for their valuable help with the releases, and an anonymous referee for stimulating and helpful suggestions. The experiments were performed in accordance with the rules and regulations of animal welfare in Germany.

Supplementary material

114_2008_476_MOESM1_ESM.pdf (92 kb)
ESM 1 (PDF 91.8 KB)
114_2008_476_MOESM2_ESM.pdf (1.3 mb)
ESM 2 (PDF 1.26 MB)


  1. Batschelet E (1981) Circular Statistics in biology. Academic Press, LondonGoogle Scholar
  2. Biro D, Guilford T, Dell’Omo G, Lipp HP (2002) How the viewing of familiar landscapes prior to release allows pigeons to home faster. J Exp Biol 205:3833–3844PubMedGoogle Scholar
  3. Chelazzi G, Pardi L (1972) Experiments on the homing behaviour of caged pigeons. Monit. Zool. Ital. 6:11–18Google Scholar
  4. Dennis TE, Rayer MJ, Walker MM (2007) Evidence that pigeons orient to geomagnetic intensity during homing. Proc R Soc B 274:1153–1158PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. Elsner B (1978) Accurate measurements of the initial track (radius 1500 m) of pigeons. In: Schmidt-Koenig K, Keeton WT (eds) Animal Migration, Navigation, and Homing. Springer, Berlin Heidelberg, pp 194–19Google Scholar
  6. Gagliardo A, Odetti F, Ioalè P (2001) Relevance of visual cues for orientation at familiar sites by homing pigeons: an experiment in circular arena. Proc R Soc Lond B 268:2065–2070CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. Griffin DR (1952) Airplane observation of homing pigeons. Bull Mus Comp Zool 107:411–440Google Scholar
  8. Guilford T, Roberts S, Biro D, Rezek I (2004) Positional entropy during pigeon homing II: navigational interpretation of latent state models. J Theor Biol 227:25–38PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  9. Heinroth O, Heinroth K (1941) Das Heimfinde-Vermögen der Brieftauben. J Ornithol 89:213–256CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  10. Hitchcock HB (1952) Airplane observation of homing pigeon. Proc Am Phi Soc 96:270–289Google Scholar
  11. Keeton WT (1973) Release-site bias as a possible guide to the ‘map’ component in pigeons homing. J Comp Physiol 86:1–16CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  12. Kowalski U (1994) Das Richtungsverhalten verfrachteter Brieftauben (Columba livia) im Orientierungskäfig. J Ornithol 135:17–35CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  13. Kramer G (1957) Experiments in bird orientation and their interpretation. Ibis 99:196–227CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  14. Matthews GVT (1951) The experimental investigation of navigation in homing pigeons. J Exp Biol 28:508–536Google Scholar
  15. Mazzotto M, Nacci L, Gagliardo A (1999) Homeward orientation of pigeons confined in a circular arena. Behav Processes 46:217–225CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  16. Meade J, Biro D, Guilford T (2006) Route recognition in the homing pigeon, Columba livia. Anim Behav 72:975–980CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  17. Nehmzow U (2006) Scientific methods in mobile robotics. Springer, LondonGoogle Scholar
  18. Pratt JG, Thouless RG (1955) Homing orientation in pigeons in relation to opportunity to observe the sun before release. J Exp Biol 32:140–157Google Scholar
  19. Schmidt-König K (1964) Über den zeitlichen Ablauf der Anfangsorientierung bei Brieftauben. Verh Dtsch Zool Ges Kiel:407–411Google Scholar
  20. Spott CM (1993) Initial orientation in homing pigeons: systematic search for the home direction. In: Orienttaion and Navigation—Birds, Humans and Other Animals. Proc Int Conf R Inst of Navigation, Oxford, paper 18Google Scholar
  21. Top 50 Hessen, Version 4 (2004) Hessisches LandesvermessungamtGoogle Scholar
  22. Wallraff HG (1980) Olfaction and homing in pigeons: nerve-section experiments, critique, hypotheses. J Comp Physiol 139:209–224CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  23. Wiltschko R, Wiltschko W (2003) Orientation behavior of homing pigeons at the Gernsheim anomaly. Behav Ecol Sociobiol 54:562–572CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  24. Wiltschko R, Schiffner I, Siegmund B (2007) Homing flights of pigeons over familiar terrain. Anim Behav 74:1229–1240CrossRefGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag 2008

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Fachbereich BiowissenschaftenJ.W.Goethe-Universität FrankfurtFrankfurt am MainGermany

Personalised recommendations