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What are Homing Pigeons?

Mary McMahon
Updated Mar 05, 2024
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A homing pigeon is a domesticated Rock Pigeon which is capable of navigating extreme distances and successfully finding its way home. This remarkable trait allows homing pigeons to be used in pigeon racing and to carry messages. Numerous pigeon hobbyists around the world raise homing pigeons, and there are also a number of organizations to promote pigeon husbandry. People who are interested in learning more about raising homing pigeons can use their favorite search engine to search for a pigeon enthusiast group in their area.

Rock Pigeons (Columbia livia) are native to Europe, North Africa, and Asia. However, they were widely introduced to other parts of the world, and in many areas, they are considered to be pests. Urban regions in particular struggle with feral Rock Pigeons, as they can be both messy and disruptive. When domesticated as homing pigeons, however, the pigeons are highly useful.

Many birds have an ability to find their way home from an area they have never been to. Homing pigeons have been selectively bred to exhibit this trait, and the birds have been known to cross immense distances. The homing pigeon has been used as a messenger animal since at least the 1100s, when the idea of attaching notes to the legs of pigeons first arose. In some parts of the world, homing pigeons are still an important conduit for information. Homing pigeons have played important roles in military operations, government negotiations, and in conveying information rapidly from place to place.

In most cases, a homing pigeon is handled from a very young age to accustom it to human contact. The homing pigeon will be housed in a pigeon loft, a secure space which the pigeon comes to regard as home. Once the bird reaches around six months of age, the handler will start taking it on short trips, releasing the bird and allowing it to make its own way home. Pigeons typically spend two to three years in active service, although birds as old as 10 have been used as carrier birds.

The unerring ability of a homing pigeon to make its way home also plays a role in pigeon racing. In pigeon racing, homing pigeons are taken to a central location and released simultaneously. The traveling time to the home loft is recorded, and the fastest bird is declared the winner. Pigeon racing is not an immensely popular sport, but its enthusiasts are very committed, and often delighted to showcase the sport to people who are interested.

Frequently Asked Questions

What are homing pigeons and how do they find their way home?

Homing pigeons are a breed of domestic pigeon (Columba livia domestica) with an extraordinary ability to find their way back to their home loft over long distances. They use a variety of navigational cues, including the sun, Earth's magnetic field, and visual landmarks. Research suggests they may even use olfactory cues to map their environment.

How far can homing pigeons fly?

Homing pigeons have been known to cover distances of up to 1,800 kilometers (over 1,100 miles) to return to their home loft. Their average flying speed is around 50 to 60 miles per hour, and they can maintain this for several hours, demonstrating remarkable endurance and orientation skills.

How are homing pigeons trained?

Training homing pigeons involves gradually increasing the distance from which they are released to find their way home. Starting from a short distance, trainers release the birds repeatedly, allowing them to develop their homing instincts and refine their navigational abilities. Consistency and patience are key in training these birds.

What is the historical significance of homing pigeons?

Homing pigeons have played a crucial role in history, particularly in wartime communications. They were used to carry messages across enemy lines and have been credited with saving thousands of lives. Due to their reliability and speed, they were often the most secure and efficient means of communication before modern technology.

Can homing pigeons be used for modern communication?

While homing pigeons are not commonly used for communication in the age of digital technology, they still hold a place in competitive racing and hobbyist circles. Pigeon racing remains a popular sport, where birds are timed on how quickly they can return home from a release point.

Are homing pigeons different from regular pigeons?

Yes, homing pigeons are selectively bred from rock pigeons (Columba livia) for their navigation skills and homing ability. While they share ancestry with feral pigeons commonly seen in urban areas, homing pigeons have enhanced abilities to return to their specific home location from great distances.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a AllThingsNature researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments

By Calvin77 — On Sep 05, 2011

@ElbowTickle - I think the pigeon from WWII is G.I. Joe. He saved a thousand soldiers from marching to their deaths. He flew 20 miles in under 20 minutes -- so he's comparable to that record racing pigeon.

I don't think pigeons are short and fat -- they are very pretty birds. I had a pet pigeon for a couple years and he was sweet. I couldn't let him outside much, because everyone tried to run over the pigeons in the streets.

I thought about breeding homing pigeons for awhile, but it seemed like a long term hobby. I was worried that I would carefully breed and train a pigeon -- only for it to get ran over.

By ElbowTickle — On Sep 04, 2011

@MissCourt - There was another famous pigeon back in WWII that flew 20 miles in 20 minutes. I don't know the name, but I bet you could find it if you searched. There are quite a few famous pigeons out there -- homing or otherwise.

Racing pigeons are pretty neat. I found a record for a racing pigeon that flew 102 miles at just over 100 miles per hour! That is really fast for something that's considered a pest.

I found another pigeon that flew at 41 miles per hour, but flew over 1000 miles back to his loft. It makes me want to raise pigeons.

By MissCourt — On Sep 03, 2011

@Jacques6 - Pigeons are well-loved by many. I remember reading about a pigeon that received the French palm for heroic service. I think it's name was Cher Ami. It was the last pigeon that a stranded infantry battalion had and was injured upon release over a WWI battlefield. It got hit by shrapnel early in flight.

Even though it's leg was almost blown off, it flew for almost half an hour back to it's loft -- where the message was received by the army and help was sent. It lived for a year before dying from the injuries.

By Jacques6 — On Sep 03, 2011

I don't know how many movies I've seen where they use homing pigeons to send secret messages. There was one pirate movie where the villain's lackey sent out a homing pigeon to help guide the bad guys to the hero in a storm. I'm not sure a real pigeon could make it through a giant storm at sea like that, but it was a neat idea.

Pigeons are weird birds. They are fat and short and really don't look like they could fly all that great -- but somehow they make it over huge distances. I think that they are one of the under appreciated birds in the animal kingdom.

Mary McMahon

Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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