Verner P. Bingman

The homing pigeon (Columba livia) has long served as a study species to exhaustively investigate the sensory and spatial (map)-representational mechanisms that guide avian navigation. However, several factors have contributed to recent questioning of whether homing pigeons are as valuable as they once were as a general model for the study of the sensory and map-like, spatial-representational mechanisms of avian navigation. These reservations include: the success of this research program in unveiling navigational mechanisms; the burgeoning of new tracking technologies making navigational experiments on long-distance migratory and other wild birds much more accessible; the almost complete loss of the historically dominant, large-scale pigeon loft/research facilities; and prohibitive university per diem costs as well as animal care and use restrictions. Nevertheless, I propose here that there remain good prospects for homing pigeon research that could still profoundly influence how one understands aspects of avian navigation beyond sensory mechanisms and spatial-representational strategies. Indeed, research into neural mechanisms and brain organization, social/personality influences and genetics of navigation all offer opportunities to take advantage of the rich spatial behavior repertoire and experimental convenience of homing pigeons. Importantly, research in these areas would not necessarily require the large number of birds typically used in the past to study the sensory guidance of navigation. For those of us who have had the opportunity to work with this remarkable animal, one research door may be closing, but a window into exciting future opportunities lies ajar.

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