The ontogeny of the homing pigeon navigational map: evidence for a sensitive learning period

Proc Biol Sci. 2001 Jan 22;268(1463):197-202. doi: 10.1098/rspb.2000.1350.


Homing pigeons can learn a navigational map by relying on the heterogeneous distribution of atmospheric odours in the environment. To test whether there might be a sensitive period for learning an olfactory-based navigational map, we maintained a group of young pigeons in an aviary screened from the winds until the age of three to four months post-fledging. Subsequently, the screens were removed and the pigeons were exposed to the winds and the environmental odours they carry for three months. One control group of pigeons was held in a similar aviary but exposed to the winds immediately upon Hedging, while another control group of pigeons was allowed free-flight. When the pigeons from the three groups were released from two distant release sites at about six months of age post-fledging, the two control groups were found to be equally good at orientating and returning home, while the experimental pigeons held in the shielded aviary for the first three months post-fledging were unable to orientate homeward and they were generally unsuccessful in returning home. This result supports the hypothesis that environmental experience during the first three months post-fledging is critical for some aspect of navigational map learning and that navigational map learning displays sensitive period-like properties.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Columbidae / physiology*
  • Flight, Animal / physiology*
  • Homing Behavior / physiology*
  • Imprinting, Psychological
  • Learning / physiology*
  • Odorants
  • Smell / physiology