Concorde may be to blame for the mysterious disappearance of thousands of racing pigeons. A geophysicist in California has found evidence that shock waves from supersonic aircraft stop homing pigeons hearing the low-frequency sound that may help them find their way home.
Pigeon racing has become a worldwide sport thanks to the birds' ability to find their way home over thousands of kilometres. Researchers have shown that pigeons have an inbuilt "compass" that allows them to navigate using the Earth's magnetic field and the position of the Sun. But to reach their destination the birds also need to have a "map sense" -- a mental chart linking their starting position and destination so they know which way to go. "Nobody has been able to understand how they do that," says Jon Hagstrum of the US Geological Survey in Menlo Park.
Some scientists have suggested that the key to the avian map sense is infrasound-low-frequency sound waves that birds can hear, but not people. Waves in the oceans continually exert pressure on the seabed, making the land shake. These seismic shivers radiate infrasound up into the air. According to Hagstrum, steep hillsides reflect the sound waves horizontally, forming unique infrasound beacons whose signals can travel for hundreds of kilometres, similar to the homing range of birds.
Hagstrum now has evidence that pigeons use these beacons to "hear" their way home. He was intrigued by the fact that occasionally most of the birds in some races are delayed, or fail to return home at all. In June 1997, for instance, 60 000 English pigeons were released in Nantes, France, but around a third did not return to England, and the rest were late.
Hagstrum suspected that the four races he studied had one thing in common: the birds had crossed the path of infrasonic shock waves generated by Concorde's sonic boom during supersonic flight. To find out, he compared the birds' predicted routes home with Concorde's flight paths and departure t
Contact: Claire Bowles