The Homing Instinct
Nature Bulletin No. 515-A February 2, 1974
Forest Preserve District of Cook County
George W. Dunne, President
Roland F. Eisenbeis, Supt. of Conservation
THE HOMING INSTINCT
We share with our dogs, cats and other domestic animals an
attachment to a place we both regard as home. If one of these animals
strays, or is sold to a new owner, or is carried away and abandoned, it
acts lost and homesick as it struggles to grope its way back. This is
easy to see in pets and among livestock on farms. Surprisingly, many
such displaced animals do find their way home, often through miles of
Less commonly known is the remarkable ability of a wide variety of
wild creatures to navigate unknown territory with pinpoint accuracy --
birds, bats, mice, turtles, fish, insects, and many others.
How do they do it? Many of us carelessly say that they have "an
instinct to go home", but these are empty words and explain nothing.
Experiments and careful observations have thrown some light on the
guides used by a few kinds in their homing behavior and on their
seasonal migrations. Different ones steer by landmarks, the sun, wind
direction, shore lines, valleys, echoes, scent trails, water qualities, a
sense of time and distance, or by combinations of these navigating
Seasonal migration of wild animals has been going on for ages.
Mysterious as it seems, there is some indication that many of them
have developed inherited responses to outside conditions which help
guide them in their travels. Still more puzzling is how an animal can
find its way home after having been carried away and released in a
Homing pigeons have been trained since ancient times to carry
messages. The training starts by taking a young bird a short distance
away from its loft and allowing it to fly back, then farther and farther
in the same direction as it gradually learns a certain strip of country,
Many of them rely entirely on visible landmarks and get lost in bad
weather or fog. They differ so widely in their homing ability that only
a few, toward the end of their training, can make jumps of 100 or 150
miles over unfamiliar territory.
The cowbird, because it lays its eggs in other birds' nest, may not seem
to be a homebody. However, years ago a back yard bird bander at
Waukegan often carried cowbirds to Chicago, released them in the
evening, and then found them back in his cage traps the next morning
-- thirty miles away. Even one shipped to eastern Pennsylvania flew
into Waukegan two weeks later.
The smallmouth black bass, one of Illinois' most prized game fish, also
has a distinct homing behavior. By catching, marking and releasing
dozens of adult bass in a creek broken into many alternate pools and
riffles, the Illinois Natural History Survey has shown that each fish
tends to remain in its own favorite pool year after year. Furthermore,
when dozens of other tagged bass were hauled in tanks and released in
distant parts of the same creek, some upstream and some downstream,
over half of them soon found their way back to their own home pools.
At least one smallmouth swam home from miles away in another creek
in the same river system.
No animal carries a built-in compass or electronic device.
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Update: June 2012