Pigeons. Fouler of statues. Urban scourge. Relentless beggar for your lunch. War hero.
You heard right.
Pigeons, those birds who mesmerize us (ok, me) with their circling flock acrobatics, once served a crucial role in the military. Their biggest asset? An uncanny sense of navigation that continues to puzzle us humans.
One particular pigeon, an American by the name of G.I. Joe, once saved more than 1000 units of the 56th London Division in WWII. How? The soldiers were able to quickly take a previously German-held village of Calvi Vecchi, Italy. Too quickly, as it turns out. An American bomber unit was readying to deploy to that location in less than 30 minutes, and the British had no way of calling that off. Being pre-mobile phone, and without functioning radio, they couldn’t just call the Americans to relay the good news.
But there was one tenuous solution: G.I. Joe. Imagine if you will, an American bird that’s been cooped up in a box, traveling from his home base, and has never been to the location he’s currently at. They let him out, and he flies, over mountains, forests, and artillery fire, wounded and blinded in one eye during his journey.
And he makes it, just in time. Without this bird, more than 1000 British soldiers and residents of this Italian village might have perished.
How did he do it? How does any pigeon do it? The answer has eluded scientists for decades. As Charles Walcott, former Director or Cornell University’s Lab of Ornithology shared, scientists have conducted all manner of crazy experiments to try to crack the code of pigeon GPS:
Putting frosted contact lenses on them. Wrapping metal coils on their head like a hat. Attaching brass weights to their backs. Embeding radio transmitters. Following them with airplanes!
Theories abound, such as this decidedly Italian one: That the pigeons sample the air as they are transported, essentially using smellovision to navigate. That’s since been disproved, with knocked out pigeons coming to in their new location, flying home without issue. Another theory is that the magnetite (iron) particles in their nose react to the earth’s own natural magnetic waves. While plausible, they’ve found places with no discernible magnetic interference where pigeons begin flying random courses.
While the mystery continues, the next time you’re lost, perhaps it’s time to channel your inner pigeon, letting it point you the way home.
Meanwhile, if you’d like to hear more of G.I. Joe’s story and some Australian humans taking navigational cues from pigeons, listen here.