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Posted at 11:00 AM ET, 07/ 2/2008

Pigeon Weather

By Capital Weather Gang

Wx and the City

By Ann Posegate, Guest Contributor

Graphic courtesy U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Have you thanked your local pigeon racer today?

I recently learned that there is, indeed, a hobby called pigeon racing. And, pigeon races are affected by both Earth and space weather. As hospital employees in Indiana recently learned, high winds can lead to a challenging race.

Keep reading to find out how Earth and space weather affect homing pigeons. Also, see our full forecast through the holiday weekend, and our detailed July 4th forecast.

You might be familiar with the homing pigeons used to deliver messages during World Wars I and II, among other past wars. On a more lighthearted note, this same species of pigeon (different from the one we see roaming around Farragut Square) is used for racing all over the world. During "good" weather with low winds -- often in late spring and early summer in the U.S. -- pigeon racers release their birds hundreds of miles away from home. The pigeons then find their way back and are judged based on how long it takes them.

Pigeons may not be the most intelligent birds -- as one long-time racer noted, "pigeons are about as smart as a dumb dog" -- but rather navigate their way home instinctually. Some scientists believe that a keen sense of smell helps point pigeons in the right direction. Most agree, however, that they also have an internal compass that navigates by following Earth's magnetic field. This is likely magnetite crystal wrapped in nerve bundles and found in their nasal region. (Makes you want to blow your nose, no?)

While recently listening to a lecture from a top scientist at NOAA's Space Weather Prediction Center, I learned that a solar storm can disrupt a pigeon's natural homing device, causing it to lose its way and never be found again. Races in which there are large losses of pigeons are called "smashes," and can occur during significant space weather.

Apparently, during the solar flares of October 2003, the first call the scientist received was from a pigeon racer wondering just how bad the magnetosphere would be affected. Hey, homing pigeons are not cheap; a healthy pure bred can go for $25,000. Lucky for our local pigeon racers, we're at a solar minimum this year with very little space weather in sight.

By Capital Weather Gang  | July 2, 2008; 11:00 AM ET
Categories:  Nature, Posegate, Wx and the City  
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I checked the Space Weather site yesterday and found there were no sunspots on the side of the sun facing us. This is a relatively rare phenomenon, more apt to occur near a solar minimum.

Posted by: El Bombo | July 2, 2008 6:47 PM | Report abuse

ann- great to see your guest appearance here!
good comments!

Posted by: eveg | July 2, 2008 10:40 PM | Report abuse

Perhaps the most famous "racing" pigeon was named
Cher Ami ("Dear Friend"). Cher Ami was inducted into the Racing Pigeon Hall of Fame in 1931 and was recipient of a gold medal from the Organized Bodies of American Racing Pigeon Fanciers.

The recognition, though, was not for prowess in pigeon racing, but rather for his extraordinary service during World War I.

Although suffering severe wounds from German bullets, including being blinded in one eye and having a partially severed leg, Cher Ami managed to fly - sunspots not withstanding - 25 miles with a message from a trapped American force being bombarded by "friendly fire". The message read:

"We are along the road parallel to 276.4.
"Our own artillery is dropping a barrage directly on us.
"For heaven's sake, stop it."

The artillery stopped and Cher Ami is credited with saving the lives of over 200 American soldiers.

Cher Ami survived and was taken back to the U.S. by General Pershing. Cher Ami eventually succumbed to wounds in 1919, but not after receiving several medals, including the French French "Croix de Guerre".

A display honoring Cher Ami is on display at the National Museum of American History.

Posted by: Steve Tracton, Capital Weather Gang | July 3, 2008 8:36 AM | Report abuse

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