Illustration: Kate Hazell

What it's like to be a pigeon

They have a bad reputation. But these “rats of the sky” have remarkable skills far beyond human comprehension
February 27, 2021

Can you enter the mind of another creature without getting hopelessly lost? After publishing my first metamorphising column, in which I attempted to imagine myself into the head of a bat, a reader aired doubts. Such mental somersaulting was all very well, he wrote, but it was a dead end: I was chasing what it would be like for me to be a bat, “not what it is like for a bat to be a bat.” The challenge is not for us to imagine what it’s like to learn echolocation, for example, but to imagine ourselves as having different forms of consciousness entirely. A more complicated proposition.

Fair enough. Still, the more I think about it, the more certain I am that our starting point must be the study of how our fellow creatures perceive the world; that studying how it looks to them must be the first step in attempting to see it through their eyes. We all exist as solitary bubbles of consciousness against which external objects collide and produce internal, psychological phenomena. Different bodies have evolved to pay attention to different life priorities—and so by careful study of a creature’s sensory capabilities, we might deduce what another creature expends energy on mentally representing. In other words, we might find a way into their minds by considering what they “think” about, using that word loosely, in a less anthropocentric way.

In tracing a path from observation to empathy, let’s call on one of nature’s master navigators: pigeons, those scruffy rats of the sky. If you live by the coast like me, you might regard them more fondly as “rock doves,” but many of us will pass dozens of these birds a day, and rarely spare them a thought. But they have quite remarkable powers of perception, which are well worth getting to know.

You can put a pigeon in a crate, drive it hundreds of miles from home, set it free, and chances are that it will be able to find its way home. (As an aside, I recommend Jon Day’s wonderful memoir, Homing: On Pigeons, Dwellings and Why We Return.) We’ve known this for centuries, but it is only in the last 50 years that we’ve really begun to understand how.

Pigeons employ a number of methods. Vision is one; they attend to familiar landmarks, using them as waymarkers in familiar territory. Pigeons have been recorded following the line of roads, taking the second left at the roundabout and so on—this adds distance to their journeys, but also lets tired birds fly on autopilot. Further from home, they are thought to rely on unusual sensory channels. They have an extreme sense of smell, allowing them to “map” an area by olfactory information. (This has been somewhat brutally tested by washing their nasal cavities with zinc sulphate solution, rendering them temporarily anosmic—and lost.) Furthermore, they are also believed to sense—even see—the Earth’s magnetic field. This “sixth sense,” as it’s sometimes dubbed, is more difficult for us to grasp.

But some keen beans who subscribe to the philosophy of transhumanism—that is, the faith that through technology we might transcend our mortal limitations—have been experimenting with just this. The FeelSpace Belt, designed by researchers at the University of Osnabrueck, constantly draws attention towards north via vibrating the segment of the waist aligned with that compass point. Wearers report greatly improved spatial awareness. It’s suggested that they might even absorb this compass sense and use it unthinkingly within six months. “After coming back,” one tester noted on returning from a new city, “I could retrieve the relative orientation of all places, rooms and buildings, even if I did not pay attention while I was actually there.” Another reported a feeling of shrinkage on removing their belt: “the world appeared smaller and more chaotic, because relative positions to places beyond the visual horizon were rather unorderly.”

One clue, perhaps, as to our pigeon’s way of being: the sense of existing within a vast and endlessly complex creation, which slots together neatly and comprehensibly. Something to aspire towards when I get lost and confused in my own hometown for the millionth time this year. 

You can read the rest of Cal's "What it's like to be..." series here