Pigeons Delayed by Radio Waves

Popular Mechanics Magazine - November, 1937
Sketch shows difference in flight of carrier pigeons subjected to short-wave radio.

Sketch shows difference in flight of carrier pigeons subjected to short-wave radio.

Popular Mechanics Magazine
November, 1937

Some mysterious power of short waves of radio to interfere with the ability of pigeons to find their way home threatens the usefulness of one of man’s oldest means of communication over long distances.

Still used in naval and military operations, the homing pigeon has a definite place in this age of radio and telegraph. Often, during maneuvers and under conditions of actual warfare, it is impossible to set up radio transmitters, and frequently weather conditions will not permit successful communication by wireless. Then the pigeon is used to carry messages between divisions of the army or between ship and shore. Free balloons, not carrying radio, release pigeons in an emergency, such as landing in wild country.

The business world also finds the pigeon useful for certain work. Newspapers have found the birds an aid to coverage of stories in isolated places, reporters sending their copy and photographers their film to the main office in small capsules attached to pigeons’ legs. One publication recently instituted pigeon communication service for transmission of news from its rural correspondents, finding it faster than the mails and less expensive than wire service.

Some of the pigeons used in U.S. Navy's test of radio's effect on the birds' ability to find way home.
Some of the pigeons used in U.S. Navy’s test of radio’s effect on the birds’ ability to find way home.
Official U.S. Navy photograph

Scientists long have been baffled by the ability of the pigeon to find its way home under the most adverse conditions of weather and warfare. This ability cannot be attributed entirely to inherited instinct, since a long period of training is necessary, no matter how fine the breeding of a bird. The training is largely a matter of food for the pigeon. While the birds are young, they are taken farther and farther from the home loft, without being permitted to satisfy their hunger, and they return for food.

It has been found that neither fog, storm, smoke nor the noise and fumes of bombardment have any effect on the carrier pigeon’s ability to return home. A pigeon will fly 300 miles a day easily and some are capable of 600 miles. Strangely enough, the average pigeon will not fly at night, but will interrupt its journey to roost, resuming flight again at daybreak. In the World War, there was recorded the feat of a pigeon that flew twenty-five miles in twenty-five minutes, returning with its message even though badly wounded. In floods in the west, it was found that for two days pigeons found their way safely while weather and atmospheric conditions prohibited operation of radio. The birds seem able to find their way home over a radius of as high as 1,000 miles and hitherto nothing seemed to affect their unerring sense of direction, a sense that science has not explained.

But just recently, tests conducted by Lieut. George F. Watson, in charge of the U. S. Navy’s loft at Lakehurst, N.J., indicate that radio’s short waves have a very definite effect on the pigeons’ sense of direction. Ordinarily a carrier pigeon, upon being released, rises in spirals to gain altitude, then takes off in the direction of its home loft. In the presence of radio waves transmitted on six megacycles, however, the pigeons have extreme difficulty in find-in their way and instead of going off in a definite direction after making several spirals, they flutter about, apparently much confused.

During a series of experiments at Ocean Gate, N.J., pigeons released while shortwave radio was being transmitted from a station near by circled in an erratic manner very close to the station and were from forty-two to fifty-two minutes returning to the loft ten miles away. Pigeons released while the station was inactive made the trip in nineteen to twenty-one minutes.

On three different occasions a group of five pigeons was released while the station was operating and within fifteen minutes a second group was released when the station was not transmitting. By this arrangement the two groups were freed under similar conditions of wind and weather and their flying times were comparable. In the first test, the group subjected to the radio waves fluttered in confusion for fifteen to twenty minutes near the station, then made the ten-mile trip in forty-nine minutes, compared to nineteen minutes for the birds flying free from interference, The second test resulted in a forty-two minute flight for the radio-conscious pigeons and eighteen for those released while the station was not operating. In a third experiment, the group subjected to radio required fifty-two minutes to reach home, the other group only twenty-one minutes.

These experiments, while not entirely conclusive, are regarded as extremely important, since they open a new field for investigation in the largely unexplored subject of short-wave radio. It already has been found that these waves have an effect on human beings. With more and more short-wave stations being built and contemplated, the subject takes on additional interest. It also opens a serious field of investigation regarding the use of pigeons in military operations and suggests the possibility that usefulness of the birds may be curtailed sharply.

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