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Homing Pigeons Mysteriously Vanish
APNet, October 9, 1998

Several thousand homing pigeons speeding home this week didn't make it. The pigeons, flying in separate races in and around Pennsylvania, are beginning to turn up, exhausted, in distant backyards. But scientists and pigeon enthusiasts are at a complete loss to explain how the precision navigators lost their way. The weather was clear and solar activity was at a lull during many of the races. "This is extremely unusual," says Jim Effting, president of the Sportsman's Racing Pigeon Club in Emmaus, Pennsylvania. Effting and his son entered 37 pigeons in a 320-kilometer race that began in New Market, Virginia, at 10 o'clock Monday morning. Only two flew back. Of a total 1800 pigeons "liberated" that morning, only 200 made it to their respective homes. It's common to lose a lone pigeon to a hawk. "Or sometimes one says 'the heck with this' and goes to live in the wild," says Effting. But losses of this magnitude are unusual. Effting says similar numbers took wrong turns in a separate race from Breezewood, Pennsylvania, to the Philadelphia suburbs on the same day.

The Washington Post and Associated Press have also reported vanishing pigeons in nearby races that took place over the weekend. Pigeons are thought to use both Earth's magnetic field and the sun to find their way. Many of the details remain a mystery however, says homing expert Charles Walcott at Cornell. "You can take them out inside a metal case with filtered air, anesthetized on a rotating turntable, and after they recover being carsick, they come home just fine" - even over distances of 1600 kilometers. Some researchers suspect some pigeons can smell their way home. Pigeons are also thought to have a magnetic sense which allows them to "see" a map of the local magnetic topology. In the history of pigeon racing, Walcott says, there have been isolated "smashes" where a large number of pigeons vanish into the hinterland. But Walcott says he's never seen so many pigeons get lost over an extended period of time in the same area. Frankly, "we're puzzled," he says.