Are birds confused by steel in ships?

24 January 2010

Question

Hi, Naked Scientists. I'm Jan from Norwich and I'm the Captain of a large oil tanker. I have a question about pigeons. We often get flocks of wild amazing pigeons land on our decks and they just stay for weeks until the crew fatten them up for the pot that is. My question is this: Does the steel in the structure of the ship which is about 50,000 tons affect the pigeons’ navigation system? I've heard that they rely, in parts, on the earth’s magnetic field.

Answer

We put this question to Michael Brooke, from the Department of Zoology at Cambridge University and curator of birds in their museum:

I think that's fairly unlikely, even if it was migrating, crossing the sea in conditions where it was using the magnetic compass. The distance over which a ship would cause distortion of that compass would really be pretty tiny. In my guess and it is a guess, it would be over maybe a maximum of 100 meters. And therefore, on that basis, the bird wouldn't have been pulled off course by the tanker. Much more a case of the bird feeling knackered, seeing a ship and then landing on the ship. So I guess, once aboard a ship, a pigeon might be more or less inclined to leave, depending on various factors. So, some of the factors could be the extent to which it has exhausted its fat - its fuel reserves. Obviously also another factor would be whether the crew were feeding it and if it was a time of year when the species was naturally migrating, that would put it in a mindset to press on, regardless. Domestic pigeons that we see around Britain derive from the wild species, a rock dove, but it's now very difficult to establish what is the natural distribution of rock doves because rock doves have interbred with the domestic pigeons. Those domestic pigeons have been shifted around the world by people. So, now you can encounter them in most continents. On the more distant continents, like Australia and New Zealand, we can be sure they have been introduced by man, but for example South East Asia, there may be a degree of uncertainty.

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