Homeward Bound

If something screwed up their sense of smell or their ability to follow those fields, the thinking has been, that could explain why pigeons got lost in certain areas.

But neither explanation made sense to Hagstrum, a geologist who grew interested in pigeons after attending an undergraduate lecture by Cornell biologist William Keeton. Keeton, who studied homing pigeons' navigation abilities, described some release-site biases in his pigeons and Hagstrum was hooked.

"I was just stunned and amazed and fascinated," said Hagstrum. "I understand we don't get dark matter or quantum mechanics, but bird [navigation]?"

So Hagstrum decided to look at Keeton's pigeon release data from three sites in upstate New York. At Castor Hill and Jersey Hill, the birds would repeatedly fly in the wrong direction or head off randomly when trying to return to their loft at Cornell University, even though they had no problems at other locations. At a third site near the town of Weedsport, young pigeons would head off in a different direction from older birds.

There were also certain days when the Cornell pigeons could find their way back home from these areas without any problems.

At the same time, homing pigeons from other lofts released at Castor Hill, Jersey Hill, and near Weedsport, would fly home just fine.