To Read the Brain of a Pigeon, Scientists Outfit It With a "Neurologger"

By Eliza Strickland | June 26, 2009 8:39 am

pigeon neurologgerTo get inside the head of a homing pigeon as it navigates towards its roost, researchers turned a flock of pigeons into cutting-edge techno-birds. The scientists outfitted the birds with “neurologgers” consisting of an electroencephalograph (EEG) to read the bird’s brain waves and a GPS tracker to record its location; by matching a bird’s position to its brain activity, the researchers could determine the bird’s reaction to the landscape below it. They found that, just like humans, the pigeons use visual landmarks in their navigation.

How homing pigeons find their way back to a starting point is not completely known. Studies have shown that the birds variously use the position of the Sun and the Earth’s magnetic field as a compass, and sense of smell and visual cues as navigation aids. But the use of visual cues has been difficult to study, because if a bird flies over a landmark and doesn’t change its course, it’s impossible to know whether the bird has not perceived the cue or is ignoring it [The New York Times].

For the study, published in Current Biology, lead researcher Alexei Vyssotski released the outfitted birds over the Mediterranean, and saw the activity in one particular frequency range plummeted as the birds flew across the featureless sea. Brain waves in this band, however, perked up as pigeons neared the coastline, and when Vyssotski’s team released pigeons in a city, the same frequencies spiked when the birds crossed prominent landmarks, such as highways [New Scientist]. Researchers also detected two surprising blips while birds were flying over a unremarkable rural landscape; when the scientists visited those locations, they found thriving pigeon colonies that presumably caught the fliers’ attention.

There were a few other unexpected quirks. Pigeons flying in flocks also produced fewer of these brain waves than pigeons flying solo. “When animals are flying in flocks it is not necessary to look at landmarks,” Vyssotski says [New Scientist].

Related Content:
80beats: Tiny Bird Backpacks Reveal the Secrets of Songbird Migration
DISCOVER: Birds Navigate Using Magnetic Compass Vision
DISCOVER: Works in Progress explores how migrating birds know where to go

Image: Alexei Vyssotski, University of Zurich

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Living World, Mind & Brain
  • Howard Flesling

    Interesting. And for the record there is a useful discussion of navigation of homing pigeons and migratory birds such as indigo buntings in the book THE EPIC HISTORY OF BIOLOGY by Anthony Serafini. Serafini also points out that such birds are believed to use gravitation, the night sky, low-frequency sound as well. Also he poins out another blip, that pigeons released at certain points on the earth are unable to use their usual navigational systems and just drop helplessly to the ground.

  • http://- Manoj Bhardwaj

    Very interesting.. There will be many more learnings related to usage of the five senses and the brain to go about…about birds and Humans… We will need to use those learnings in the future.. Our next generations will definitely put into use such new learnings for survival.

    Manoj

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