Pigeon research ruffles feathers

A pigeon fitted with Swiss GPS technology (Zurich University)

The discovery that homing pigeons find their way around by following roads and railways has caused a stir in both Switzerland and Britain.

This content was published on February 13, 2004 - 11:13

A Zurich-based scientist accuses a former colleague from Britain’s Oxford University of taking credit for the research.

Hans-Peter Lipp says Tim Guilford conducted press interviews about the findings without acknowledging the work of Swiss researchers.

“I don’t mind competition,” a furious Lipp told swissinfo, “but you can expect a certain degree of honesty - and in this case it has been missing, not a grain of honesty.”

When contacted in Oxford, Guilford defended his research and said he was shocked by the allegations.

“I have never had to deal with such accusations from a former colleague,” Guilford said.

Tracking devices

The research in question - which involved attaching tiny tracking devices to the birds - concluded that some pigeons appear to use landmarks and road junctions as reference points to remember where they are.

Oxford University told swissinfo in a written statement that it “had been assured” by the British researcher that the findings were “entirely the result of the work carried out by Guilford and his team”.

But university officials concede that the research in Oxford “uses technology developed and supplied by Professor Lipp and associated researchers in Switzerland and Italy”.

Lipp says he had agreed to provide Guilford and his team with data and also the technology to conduct the research.

Supplying technology

Guilford was supplied with a miniature global positioning system - developed by Lipp’s research team and the Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich - to track the flying patterns of the birds.

Oxford University says it will now conduct a review of the material brought to its attention by Lipp, but the Swiss scientist believes the damage has already been done.

“When we were cooperating it was clear that we were competing with each other to some extent,” said Lipp.

“[But] to my knowledge, it is without precedent that somebody rushes to the press in order to distribute findings that have not been verified by anyone else.”

swissinfo, Karin Kamp and Billi Bierling

Key facts

Tim Guilford of Oxford University claims to have discovered that homing pigeons find their way around by following roads, railway lines and other landmarks.
In a ten-year study the University found that some pigeons use landmarks to remember where they are.
It suggested that the natural compasses of the birds are often less important than their knowledge of man-made transportation routes.

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