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ScienceShot: Homing Pigeons Follow Their Noses

27 January 2011 5:10 pm
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Thinkstock; (inset) Gagliardo et al., The Journal of Experimental Biology 214 (2011)

Next time you have a cold, be glad you're not a messenger pigeon carrying important orders over a battlefield. Breathing through both nostrils, especially the right one, is essential to these birds' famed ability to fly away home, scientists report today in the Journal of Experimental Biology. The researchers saddled a group of homing pigeons with GPS tracking devices, placed a rubber plug in either their right or left nostrils, and released them 25 miles outside of their home in Pisa, Italy. Pigeons with their left nostrils blocked had a little more trouble navigating than clear-nosed pigeons, but eventually made it home. Birds with their right nostrils blocked made it back, too, but they stopped more often and took an even more circular route than the others. The researchers believe that the birds needed time to gather more smells and construct a map based on odors in the wind. And the finding that the right nostril is the better sniffer suggests that the right and left hemispheres of bird brains have different functions.

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