Technology and Pigeons: Eight Fascinating Facts about Pigeons

Pigeons Send Air Quality Data Through Cell Phone Technology

Amazingly, pigeons with tiny backpacks and cell phones are sending air quality data to a blog that has an aim to fill in information concerning air quality.  The birds carry miniscule backpacks containing a GPS monitor, pollution sensors and a cell phone that sends the data to a blog that is then overlaid on Google maps.   The information the pigeons collect transmits in real time and anyone who is interested in the data the birds collect can logon to the website and hover over the map to find out about air pollution in their area!

Not As Dumb As We Think – Pigeons Can Think In Logarithms

Anyone who has taken logarithms in school knows how difficult they can be to grasp.  A recent experiment has demonstrated that logarithms come naturally to pigeons!  In this unique experiment, the researchers trained the pigeons to tap one lever when the light flash was short (one second) and another lever when the flash was long (16 seconds).  When they flashed lights of an intermediate length, the researchers expected that they would distinguish long from short around the midpoint of 8 or 9 seconds.  However, the pigeons switched at 4 seconds.

The researches hypothesized that pigeons may perceive time on a logarithmic scale, meaning the higher values are increasingly compressed together.  Another theory suggested that the pigeons perceive time linearly, but that the longer intervals confuse them.  Using the log scale, the pigeons will correctly classify nine and 10-second flashes more frequently than the 7 and 8 second flashes.  Using the linear scale their accuracy should be about the same.  The end result of the experimentconducted at the University of Western Ontario in London demonstrated that six pigeons tapping levers for 20 days conformed neatly to the logarithmic model.

Pigeons Used In New X-ray Videos Showing Animal Skeletons In Motion

Unbelievably, new 3-D video technology is allowing scientists to film various animals in motion to show their skeletons on the move.  Like something out of the movies, the new technology allows them to see through skin and muscle to view the skeleton move three dimensionally.  While still in the design phase, two Brown University students are completing this study to understand how the biomechanics of flight evolved.  They have filmed alligators on a treadmill and pigeons flying in wind tunnels as part of their research.  This fascinating approach combines a CT scan with high speed X-ray videos of the animal being studied!

Helping Scientists Understand How Homing Pigeons Navigate

Did you know that homing pigeons have been used for hundreds of years?  Did you know that one of the earliest recorded examples of the pigeon’s amazing homing skills occurred during the Olympics (776 B.C.) when the birds would deliver word of the race results to villages around ancient Greece.  Even though pigeons are no longer used in this manner, their inborn ability to fly home from places they have never been fascinates biologists and others.  Scientists hypothesize that to determine their position relative to their home, the pigeons use a combination of physical factors such as magnetic fields, smell, sound, and polarized light.

Scientific research over the last twenty years has shown that pigeons use a sun compass and magnetic inclination compass to localize the bearing toward home in reference to their flying direction.  It’s only in the last several years that researchers have been able to track the entire flight pattern of the pigeon using GPS devices, weighing five grams that are attached to their backs.  The researchers have successfully conducted experiments documenting the flight patterns of the test pigeons, are continuing their work, and hope to measure the flight paths of other birds such as falcons, albatrosses and geese.

Pigeons Promote PlayStation Tennis Game

In 2003, clever marketers promoted their PlayStation2 tennis game by releasing homing pigeons painted with the game logo to fly in and out of the Wimbledon Championship.  The company ensured that the specially trained pigeons were not harmed during the stunt by using water-based paint.  In order to ensure tennis play was not disrupted, the pigeons were released during warm ups and they were not allowed to land during the games.  At the end of each day, the well-trained pigeons flew back to a secret locale in London.

Programmers Use Pigeons To Deliver Data Between Computers

In 2001, a group of Norwegian computer programmers decided to prove that birds could deliver data between computers, in a similar manner as the Internet.   The experiment involved attempting a ‘ping’ – a method computers use to check for the presence of another computer on a network.

One programmer began typing commands and the message was printed and cut (using scissors) into ‘packets’ – nine small portions of computer code that would be attached and sent by separate pigeons.  The first pigeon was sent off with the first message and after an hour, the receivers were getting concerned because the flight should have been approximately ten minutes.  Eventually the pigeon arrived and the programmers removed the packet and scanned it into the computer.  The return message was printed and attached to the pigeon to carry back home.  They scanned the code back into the original computer and registered a successfully completed ping.

Chinese Successfully Use Remote Control To Guide Pigeons

In one of the stranger uses of a remote control, Chinese scientists have reported that they can control a pigeon’s flight with tiny electrodes implanted in the bird’s brain. The researchers claimed that the signals stimulate different areas of the pigeon’s brain and that the pigeon then responded to the command.  They claim it is the first successful experiment on a pigeon worldwide and hope that the technology can be put to practical use in the future.

Pigeons Are The Technology Behind Google

In a spoof article posted on April Fools day in 2002, Google claimed that the heart of Google’s search technology is PigeonRank. In this humorous article, Google pokes fun at itself by stating that the founders of Google figured that low cost pigeon clusters (PCs) could be put to work to compute the relative value of web pages faster than human editors or machine algorithms.

Google stated that when a search query is submitted to the site, it is routed to a data coop where monitors flash result pages at super fast speeds.  When one of the pigeons observes a relevant result, it strikes a rubber coated steel bar with its beak, and that page is then given a PigeonRank value of one.  Each time that page is ‘pecked’ the rank increases!  Those pages receiving the most pecks are returned to the top of the user’s results page and the other results are listed in ‘pecking order’.  It was a humorous way of showcasing the pigeon’s intelligence and of poking fun at the search engine giant.