Learning multiple routes in homing pigeons.
Flack A., Guilford T., Biro D.
The aerial lifestyle of central-place foraging birds allows wide-ranging movements, raising fundamental questions about their remarkable navigation and memory systems. For example, we know that pigeons (Columba livia), long-standing models for avian navigation, rely on individually distinct routes when homing from familiar sites. But it remains unknown how they cope with the task of learning several routes in parallel. Here, we examined how learning multiple routes influences homing in pigeons. We subjected groups of pigeons to different training protocols, defined by the sequence in which they were repeatedly released from three different sites, either sequentially, in rotation or randomly. We observed that pigeons from all groups successfully developed and applied memories of the different release sites (RSs), irrespective of the training protocol, and that learning several routes in parallel did not impair their capacity to quickly improve their homing efficiency over multiple releases. Our data also indicated that they coped with increasing RS uncertainty by adjusting both their initial behaviour upon release and subsequent homing efficiency. The results of our study broaden our understanding of avian route following and open new possibilities for studying learning and memory in free-flying animals.