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Pigeons Pigeons (ffilipe/flickr)

Tim Howard heads to Fort Monmouth, New Jersey for the story of a WWII hero whose feats of navigation saved hundreds of lives. The hero? A pigeon named G.I. Joe. Museum Curator Mindy Rosewitz fills in the details. Professor Charles Walcott  helps Tim delve into the mysteries of how pigeons pull off these seemingly impossible journeys--flying home across hundreds of miles of unfamiliar terrain. Then, Dr. Lera Boroditsky tells us about a language in Australia in which a pigeon-like ability to orient yourself is so can't even say hello without knowing exactly which direction you're facing. And finally, Jad and Robert talk to Karen Jacobsen, aka "the GPS girl," about her own navigational abilities.


Lera Boroditsky, Karen Jacobsen and Charles Walcott


Tim Howard

Comments [30]

Nadine from Oregon

Those interested in these abilities and especially in aboringal cultures, you may want to read "The Songlines" by Bruce Chatwin. Fascinating . .

Nov. 26 2016 02:55 PM
Eric from Nowhere I want to be

Listen to all the podcasts in the Lost and Found Season 9 Episode 2.

Three of the stories have two things in common that were glanced over and not put as the actual issue: Sound, and Vision.

Emillie is blinded, and her problem is fixed with a hearing aid.

The woman who can't tell direction: She is completely confused from her vision, but she can still hear direction (when she has to find her crying children) The expert tells you that she is missing or has undeveloped neurons in her hippocampus. If there was something missing, how could she fix the problem by spinning around? (inner ear problem - anatomy 101)

The pigeons, "We don't know"

"By keeping birds under artificial lights, scientists have manipulated the birds' sense of time and tricked them into flying in the wrong direction."
-Mentions infrasound.
-Mentions infrasound

Those are the first two links that pop up on google, the third is the first from looking up the Jersey Hill Fire tower.

I would guess:
The "pigeon Bermuda triangles": If you take the pigeons too high up, or into a cloud bank, it puts them in a new level of atmosphere, changing the way they perceive both light and sound. The angle of the sun's rays, gives direction. A Sundial. Time.

Why exactly, was the infrasound not mentioned in that podcast?

Put the three stories together, and it seems like RadioLab knew when they made the show, exactly how the birds get home. The low frequency sounds of the other pigeons in the nest, and the Sun.

I'm directionless, as to my own words at this point.

Thank you, RadioLab.
Extremely informative.

Jan. 01 2015 04:41 PM
Pat from Connecticut

I am curious about the people with dead reckoning. It seems likely that as the children learn that language, it lights up that part of their brain with the aerial view. My dad always talked in turns of compass directions, rather than left and right (unless it was about something within reach), and now that is how I think, too. It's not dead reckoning, but it's close.
Raised in Oregon, my dad and I hiked throughout the forests from the time I was 6 or 7. We never got lost, and I still see the world from a high vantage point - the ocean to the west and the mountains and continent to the east.
That worked, until I moved from Oregon to Boston. One day I had to go to Hartford Airport to pick someone up, and as I drove north on I-127 (now I-95) I exited onto I-90 going east. I couldn't figure why I was getting closer to Boston! Then it came to me, that I had turned toward my "continental" orientation, because I knew Hartford was toward the continent from where I was. I had to readjust my inner map from then on so, I use maps to lock the birds-eye-view into my mind, no matter where I am.

Dec. 27 2014 12:43 AM

What's the spelling of this tribe? I'm a poet looking to incorporate this idea into one of my works and trying to do some more research. Thank you if you can help!

Feb. 18 2014 04:21 PM
Dawn Kelly

Great and nice blogs. It's also very interesting and informative. Thanks for sharing this kinds of blog.

Please visit my website: The Inner compass®

Aug. 27 2013 08:31 PM
Anthelia from St. Paul, MN

My uncle told me that when he was eight he was a Boy Scout and he learned which way was north. When he got home he took my four-year-old mother out in the back yard and showed her where north was. He told me that after that she always *knew* where north was. He said it was like a parlor trick - wherever they were, one of the grownups would ask this tiny girl which way was north. She could always tell them and she was always right. My memory is that to the end of her life she never got lost.

Apr. 06 2013 03:44 PM
robin d gill from miami, florida, usania

I heard Dr. Lera Boroditsky's introduction of dead-reckoning Australian aborigine language or possibly the gps person after that (I apologize for working while listening and missing some things)and wondered if many or all of the "third of all languages" exceptionally attuned to directional precision share words for what Balinese call/ed "paling" (an awful dizzy or nauseous feeling from loss of bearing).

Apr. 06 2013 12:59 PM

Is it just me, or does some of this sound like super powers? So the pigeons developed this evolutionarily, but the people with absolute orientation? That was TAUGHT. Self developed. Imagine the future you, with perfect orientation, birds eye 'view', perfect pitch, photographic memory, enhanced sense of smell--and these are only the ones we already know of.

Apr. 04 2013 08:49 PM
gf from vienna

another idea about pigeons finding home: infrasound ---

Feb. 01 2013 03:19 AM
Sharon Cole

I used to deliver radio-pharmaceuticals in Western New York. I too would use the "birds eye view" of a map that was in my head. I never thought much about it until I heard Karen talk about her GPS. I haven't had the need for this mapping ability for a long time. Now it's gone. I've since moved to Florida. I guess I will try to do the "view" again. i get turned around all the time down here. I guess it's one of those things if you don't use it you lose it. Or maybe I'm just getting older.

Jun. 14 2012 11:39 AM
Mario Leonardo Morfin Ramírez from Toronto, ON.

An update on the subject !
I hope you all find it interesting, and maybe there will be enough for a RadioLab revisit.

Apr. 27 2012 10:12 AM
David from Melbourne, Australia

I been going back through past podcasts and found this particually interesting.
The Austrlian link got me thinking about two common greetings used in the Australian dialect of the English language, "How have you been?" and "How are you going?". Both containing direction references, been and going. Have we borrowed this from the Australian Aboriginal languages? Don't know.
Also, for tens of thousands of years Australian Aboriginal art portraying their landscape is represented from a bird's-eye view, hills, rivers, water holes, sacred places etc. This all began from the Dream Time, way before the even the idea of man flying.
I think the whole idea of direction and distance becomes more important in a country so sparsely populated and geographically flat as Australia, population 23 million, but still a very similar size to the U.S.

Apr. 04 2012 06:48 AM
Dylan from South Florida

So wait... people don't constantly keep track of their location? Why not!?

May. 25 2011 12:46 PM
Mindy from Louisiana

This story reminds me of the tales I've heard of dogs and cats who were moved and then journeyed hundreds of miles to find their way to their old home again. Might be another angle to explore on the topic of lost and found.

May. 06 2011 03:10 PM
Russ Charif from Ithaca, NY

The supposedly "new" theory about pigeons using infrasound as a navigational cue was actually first proposed in 1969 by Donald Griffin (the same pioneering biologist who discovered bat sonar as a Harvard undergraduate in the 1930s). In 1977, Marilyn Yodlowski, Mel Kreithen, and William Keeton confirmed that homing pigeons could hear sounds at the relevant frequencies and amplitudes.

May. 03 2011 09:46 PM
Claudia Newbold from Menlo Park, CA

There is in fact a new theory about pigeon navigation. Jon Hagstrum, Research Geophysicist at USGS presented his theory at a USGS public lecture in Menlo Park, CA on March 31. His findings indicate that birds use low-frequency acoustic (infrasound) signals to navigate. You can reach Jon at USGS ( for more info.

Apr. 10 2011 02:52 AM

What an amazing story. I just feel like I'm a better person for listening to this.

Apr. 06 2011 08:16 PM
Kit from Cerritos, CA

I shot a young buck one time. It had brown fur, a white tail and nubby little antlers. Does that have racial overtones? Of course not! Young buck has been used for a long, long time and it simply means a young male--has nothing to do with race, color, creed or religion.

Mar. 20 2011 10:25 PM
Monica Iancu from NYC

I was fascinated by this episode!
I enjoyed the part where the linguist comments on "pigeon" languages that involve directional associations. I think she referred to one from Australia.

I have studied aboriginal paintings and culture and have learned that the art is often beautiful abstractions of landscape. These landscapes involve a kind of navigational story, relating directly to events in time and mythology.

I wonder if this and the rest of the one third of languages mentioned relate in any way to the indigenous experiences of these places?

Mar. 18 2011 04:08 PM
Monica Iancu from NYC

I was fascinated by this episode!
I enjoyed the part where the linguist comments on "pigeon" languages that involve directional associations. I think she referred to one from Australia.

I have studied aboriginal paintings and culture and have learned that the art is often beautiful abstractions of landscape. These landscapes involve a kind of navigational story, relating directly to events in time and mythology.

I wonder if this and the rest of the one third of languages mentioned relate in any way to the indigenous experiences of these places?

Mar. 18 2011 04:08 PM
Jeff from Minneapolis, MN

I don't understand why the 'middle of the ocean' scenario refutes the 'pigeons with inner compass' argument. It assumes the person is given a compass upon arrival at the unknown location. Pigeons have their compasses with them the whole time.

Feb. 28 2011 02:57 PM
Plix from Marco Island, Florida

Thank you for doing the work I would be doing if I could. Yet another, in a long line of interesting episodes. The natural ability of creatures to navigate without access to maps or GPS is fascinating.

ps: There is no 'blot' on this episode. With regard to the comment by BenR, I have lived in various parts of the south for 45 years. 'Young buck' is not at all an exclusive term for a black man.

Feb. 16 2011 11:13 AM
BenR from Oakland, CA

Big fan of the show (long-time listener, first time blog-commenter...) Sorry to say there's a blot on this episode - the use of the term "young buck". At least in the US South, that's a racially charged term which always referred to a black man. So saying that the male pigeons were rushing to get home to chase out the "young buck" had some racial overtones that I'm sure you didn't mean, but got into your otherwise great (as usual) story.

Feb. 11 2011 12:27 PM
Ida from Brooklyn, NY

As someone who is dyslexic, the prospect of existing in a world with no left and right where everyone orients through nautical directions is deeply thrilling. As least, I assume it's my dyslexia that makes this prospect appealing. While I feel most secure navigating by nautical direction, I can't say I have this dead reckoning ability. But it does, still, at the age of 26, take me up to 5 seconds to figure out where "left" and "right" are. How embarrassing. To live without that embarrassment? I'll just have to keep dreaming.

Feb. 02 2011 10:19 PM
Aaron from Fort Collins, CO

I love these podcasts, and I listen to them every week. Today when I was listening to this specific one about how birds find their way back home, it brought to mind a science article I read recently that may shed some light into how birds can see the electromagnetic currents to help them get home by using quantum entanglement. Pretty intense stuff, but a great read:

Feb. 01 2011 03:57 PM
jinnet powel from Portland OR

Want to improve your dead reconing skills? Try orienteering.

Wasn't there a report recently on NPR that the increase reliance on GPS navigation systems (ie in car) are linked to descreased memory? Big Idea: knowing where you are as you move through space increases your memory. Makes sense, because from what I've heard on the brainscience podcast, the hypocampus is key in recording memories as well as regulating motion. Could someone explore/ expand on this possible connection?

Jan. 29 2011 03:03 PM

You guys totally should have asked what would happen to those Australians if you blindfolded them. According to another story that Robert did, everybody ends up walking in circles when they have a blindfold on. If these people have a bird's eye view of their surroundings in their mind, maybe this wouldn't happen to them. I really think you should follow up on this connection.

Jan. 28 2011 12:48 PM
Cindy Brown from Pine Lake, GA east southeast of Stone Mountain, GA

For most of my life I've had an uncanny ability to find my way around. I've often described to others the bird's eye view of the world I have and how it makes it easy to find my way around. I believe this ability was developed when as a teen my Dad and I road motorcycles in the woods and we had to find our way around circuitous trails.
Love this podcast!

Jan. 28 2011 10:19 AM
Greg from North Platte, NE

Excluding witchcraft and voodoo, the answer is simple. Now I must research the magnetic fields (other than the obvious polar fields). Interesting. I accept the challange. I too, hope my results match Prof. Walcot's answer "we don't know". Because then we'll be on the same page. To say that my conclusion is identical to that of Prof. Wolcot will look good on my resume (when jobs become available).

Jan. 27 2011 10:53 PM
Tristan from Pittsburgh, PA

The amazing navigational ability of these Australian aboriginals seems like it might be a crucially adaptive skill for a nomadic or hunter-gatherer people. I wonder if this was common as humanity spread out from Africa to cover the globe, but was lost when we shifted to agriculture. It would certainly help explain the amazing navigational feats of the polynesian peoples who managed to traverse the vast expanses of the Pacific in wooden canoes.

Jan. 26 2011 04:21 PM

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