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Homing Pigeons and Space Weather - Windows to the Universe

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Homing pigeons are apparently able to sense magnetic fields and use an internal compass to help them navigate. When space weather disturbances disrupt Earth's magnetic field, these pigeons can become confused and lose their way.
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Image courtesy of M.A. Shea, Geophysics Directorate, Phillips Laboratory.

Confused Homing Pigeons and Space Weather

Certain animal species on Earth (such as the homing pigeon) are able to detect Earth's magnetic field and use it for navigational purposes. Homing pigeons have been known to reach home by flying over 1,600 km (1,000 miles) in two days time through unfamiliar territory. In homing pigeons, this ability has been cultivated by selective breeding. Homing pigeons were used by the U.S. military during World War I, World War II and the Korean War. During World War I, one amazing bird flew 25 miles in 24 minutes to deliver a message, arriving with one leg shot off and a bullet wound. Pigeons were replaced in the military by electronic devices in 1956. However, racing homing pigeons is a sport that is enjoyed worldwide.

During space weather disturbances, the intense electric currents flowing in near-Earth space produce nonsteady magnetic fields that are felt at the Earth's surface. Homing pigeons have been observed to become confused during such disturbances and can even be lost.

Last modified July 31, 2008 by Randy Russell.

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Windows to the Universe, a project of the National Earth Science Teachers Association, is sponsored in part by the National Science Foundation and NASA, our Founding Partners (the American Geophysical Union and American Geosciences Institute) as well as through Institutional, Contributing, and Affiliate Partners, individual memberships and generous donors. Thank you for your support! NASA AGU AGI NSF