Today's news, tomorrow's lesson - 31 January - Mystery of homing pigeons’ ‘Bermuda triangle’ may have been solved

Homing pigeons are famous for their ability to find their way back to where they live, even when they find themselves hundreds of miles away in a place they have never seen before. But no-one has managed to figure out exactly how they manage it.


Today's news, tomorrow's lesson - 31 January

Mystery of homing pigeons’ ‘Bermuda triangle’ may have been solved


By Stephen Exley

Homing pigeons are famous for their ability to find their way back to where they live, even when they find themselves hundreds of miles away in a place they have never seen before. But no-one has managed to figure out exactly how they manage it.

But now Dr Jonathan Hagstrum – an expert from the US Geological Survey – believes he may finally have come up with an explanation.

The answer comes from one particular place in New York State in the USA which seems to confuse the pigeons. Whenever pigeons are released from Jersey Hill, near Ithaca, they became disorientated and fly about aimlessly. This has led to the area being described as the “Bermuda Triangle” of the homing pigeon world”, after the notorious area of the Atlantic Ocean where a number of boats and aeroplanes have mysteriously disappeared over the years.

But now Dr Hagstrum’s research, published in the Journal of Experimental Biology, suggests the birds are using low frequency sounds – which humans cannot hear – to create “acoustic maps” and find their way around. The sounds vary according to the place, and Mr Hagstrum thinks this helps pigeons “hear” their way home. The low-pitched noises, called infrasound, come from the sea but can heard by pigeons all over the world – apart from at Jersey Hill, where they are disrupted by unusual wind and temperature patterns.

“The temperature structure and the wind structure of the atmosphere were such in upstate New York that the sound was bent up and over Jersey Hill,” he told the BBC. This means that they cannot ‘hear’ their way home, like they usually do.”

Dr Hagstrum admitted his work was "controversial", but said: "This doesn't prove it by any stretch - but it puts out a new idea, which, as far as I'm concerned, is the best explanation of what pigeons are doing.”



Questions


  • The 'Bermuda Triangle' is one of the world's unsolved mysteries. Can you think of any other examples of things that cannot be explained?
  • What tools do you use to find your way around unfamiliar places?
  • People have used homing pigeons to carry messages in the past. Which other animals can be trained to help humans?
  • Can you think of any ethical arguments against using animals in this way?

Related resources


BBC Class Clips: Racing homing pigeons

  • A narrated film about homing pigeons and the types of landscapes and places they fly over to return home.

Map reading skills

  • A complete lesson to help pupils master the art of navigation.

World of mysteries

  • Explore some of the world’s unsolved mysteries with this worksheet activity.

Birds

  • A PowerPoint-based research activity on different types of birds.


Further news resources


First News front page

  • Help your pupils understand the features of the front page of a newspaper.

Write all about it

  • Get students creating their own news report with this step-by-step guide.

What is the News?

  • A sociological and media perspective on what makes an event 'newsworthy'.

On the box

  • Help pupils to write their own TV news broadcast with this handy PowerPoint.

Structuring stories

  • A scheme of work to help students structure news stories.

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