Racing pigeons in China may in fact benefit from the country’s severe air pollution, because polluted air appears to help the birds navigate home faster, a new study suggests.
In the study – published January 5 in the journal Scientific Reports – the researchers used data from pigeon racing and environmental agencies. Then, they looked at the performance of pigeons in 415 races that took place in one of China’s most polluted location – the North China Plain.
To better understand how air pollution may affect the birds during the races, the researchers compared data on pollution levels with the pigeons’ racing times on race days.
The racing pigeon or homing pigeon is a variety of domestic pigeon (Columba livia domestica) that is able to find its way home over extremely long distances. These pigeons are selectively bred and trained to complete tests of speed – 37 mph (60 km/h) on average – and navigation, according to the researchers.
The Royal Pigeon Racing Association (RPRA) stated that racing pigeon can live for more than twenty years, compared to feral pigeons that you might see in the city (which are the same species) that generally live only three to four years. The RPRA noted that although racing pigeons and their urban relatives are the same species, they could not be more different.
For the new study, the researchers analysed racing data from 2013 to 2014, especially during fall months when the air quality in the North China Plain was at its worst. Because pigeons rely on sight and smell to orient themselves, researchers expected that high levels of air pollution would make them fly slower and weaken their navigation skills.
To the researchers’ surprise, the results of the study were completely unexpected: the pigeons flew home significantly faster when the air quality was worse, they said.
Researchers are still unsure of the reason why the birds would have higher performances under worse conditions. However, one possible explanation proposed by the researchers, would be that pigeons have a sense of self-preservation. That means that the birds were aware of the poor air quality and were simply trying to get out of the polluted air as quickly as possible.
Even though the air pollution in China may temporarily benefit racing pigeons, experts are very concerned about record-breaking smog levels. At that level of pollution, everyone is at risk, and long-terms exposure may lead to serious health problems for residents in China.
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