Issue 21 Electricity Spring 2006

Postcard / Pigeons Don't Fly at Night

Jasper van den Brink

I spent the cold winter of 2004 at an artist residency in Stockholm. Around this time of year, Stockholm becomes light at 10 am and is already becoming dark again by 2 pm. I noticed that these circumstances, which confused my biological clock, strongly influenced my daily life and my experiences.

That is how I had the idea of releasing over the city a large flock of pigeons with LED lights connected to their legs so that people walking below could observe a marvelous light dance in the sky. These LED lights are very small and don’t trouble the pigeons at all. Because homing pigeons always want to fly home straight away, the lights can be easily removed after the flight.

My interest in pigeons originates from my passion for aerial photography and aerial film recordings. For example, in both world wars, pigeons were used for spying activities. Besides sending airmail, pigeons could be equipped with a small camera for taking aerial photographs. Keeping pigeons was generally forbidden during World War II and the Germans handed out severe punishment for those who disobeyed.

Unfortunately, I ended up canceling the project. It turned out that pigeons cannot easily find their way home in the dark because they navigate by the sun. Recent research indicates, however, that pigeons have two additional navigational tools—a magnetic compass and a scent compass. Little information is available about the composition of the “maps” or “charts” that pigeons use in combination with these compasses. But it is clear that navigation does not depend on any one system, and in fact it is possible, albeit difficult, to train pigeons to become so-called night-flying pigeons. Part of the special training entails chasing them back into the dark when they want to return before dusk. And they will be able to fly at night only if their biological clock is as completely reset as mine was.

This picture, Pigeons Don’t Fly At Night, #2, is part of my ongoing research to train pigeons to fly at night.

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