The evolution dissent

Take a left turn at Albuquerque

For years, scientists have pondered the mystery of how carrier pigeons navigate back home. Do they have special inner-ear navigational systems? Do they sense the magnetic fields of the earth? Do they perform some complex on-the-fly calculus using the position of sun?

Nope. Turns out they just follow the roads, like everyone else. A bunch of scientists at Oxford university in London attached teensy GPS trackers to pigeons and found the birds flew quite precisely along the lines of major highways. As professor Tim Guildford told the Telegraph:

“In short, it looks like it is mentally easier for a bird to fly down a road and then turn right. They are just making their journey as simple as possible”.

His team carried out dozens of tests with pigeons in Oxfordshire, releasing them between 10 and 20 miles from their lofts, each with a tiny GPS tracking device attached to their backs. Matching their routes, they found most flew straight down the A34 Oxford bypass.

“It was almost comical watching one group of birds that we released near a major A road. They followed the road to the first junction where they all turned right, and a couple of junctions on, they all turned left”.

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I'm Clive Thompson, the author of Smarter Than You Think: How Technology is Changing Our Minds for the Better (Penguin Press). You can order the book now at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Powells, Indiebound, or through your local bookstore! I'm also a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine and a columnist for Wired magazine. Email is here or ping me via the antiquated form of AOL IM (pomeranian99).

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