Flying Homing Pigeons to Sample Urban Climates


Homing pigeons are being bred and trained as messengers for centuries, due to their remarkable ability to navigate. As far back as in ancient Greece, they were used to announce events like the Olympic Games.

More recently, homing pigeons delivered messages during World War I and II, known as “war pigeons” and saving lives. Their navigation skills have not been fully explained, and different theories have been put forward to explain how pigeons orientate. These include mapping a territory using emitted low-frequency infrasound waves, following linear landscape features, and even smelling their way back home.

Image Credit: Rick Thomas

Now, researchers from the University of Birmingham have given a new boost in the professional career of homing pigeons. The researchers fit the pigeons with tiny sensors which collect data on the temperature, humidity, air pressure and ambient light information in urban climates.

The major advantage of the birds is that they inexpensively fly over long stretches, in areas unreachable to humans, drones and other portable sensors. The data collected support research and decision making by providing valuable information relevant to study- for example, pollutant dispersion and hotspots.

The research team is working together with the owners of the homing pigeons on keeping the pigeons safe. Furthermore, they are preparing the next steps: expanding the list of variables that can be monitored by the tiny sensors strapped on the back of the birds, and developing a more self-sustaining network where data collection can take place by using urban Wi-Fi.

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