Dec 10 2008

Pigeons in the Nation’s Service

Published by at 4:51 pm under Doves & Chickens

Rock Pigeon (photo by Chuck Tague)Until quite recently, pigeons had a noble reputation.  Their homing instincts made them critical message carriers especially in times of war.

Pigeons changed the course of history from the time of the ancient Greeks until the mid 20th century.  Armies on the move carried cages full of pigeons ready to send news to headquarters.  To deliver a message they tied a capsule to a pigeon and released the bird.  The pigeon immediately flew home.  Ta dah!

This was a great advantage for the first army to use pigeons, but it didn't take long for both sides to figure out they could kill the birds and intercept the messages.

Pigeons were critical in the Franco-Prussian War and the seige of Paris when microphotography allowed one bird to carry up to 30,000 messages.  The birds were used extensively in World War I.  A pigeon even saved an American battalion that was trapped behind enemy lines and bombarded by friendly fire.  The soldiers released several birds but all were killed except Cher Ami.  Though seriously wounded, Cher Ami continued his 25-mile mission, delivered the message and stopped the shelling.  After he recovered, though missing an eye, he was awarded the French "Croix de Guerre."

Pigeons continued to carry messages during World War II, especially for spying and situations that required radio silence.  They even carried cameras that took pictures behind enemy lines, a pre-satellite form of aerial surveillance.  Pigeons were considered so important that both the British and the Germans used peregrines to kill the enemy's messengers.  This wasn't totally successful because the peregrines didn't ask whose side the pigeon was on before killing it.

The age of electronic communication put pigeons out of a job.  The last military use(*) of pigeons was in the 1970s when the U.S. Coast Guard discovered the birds recognize shapes and are much better than humans at finding people and equipment lost at sea.  This program never made it beyond the testing phase, though.  It ended during budget cuts.

Since then the pigeon's reputation has gone sour.  Few people remember the glory days (I don't) and most have little respect when they see large flocks pecking seed on the sidewalk.

But there's a glimmer in this dark cloud.  Pigeons continue to help people through scientific research - from bird navigation to power napping.  If a pigeon helps find the cure for cancer, we'll all be grateful.  Maybe then the glory days will return.

(photo by Chuck Tague)

(*) p.s. I take that back!  The U.S. military used pigeons as gas detectors in the early days of the Iraq War.

p.s. #2.   Just found a Dec 27th blog on this subject with additional information on the pigeons of war.

6 responses so far

6 Responses to “Pigeons in the Nation’s Service”

  1. Lindaon 11 Dec 2008 at 1:02 pm

    When I was very young, my older brother became fascinated by carrier pigeons. He and my father built a coop at the back of our lot and Tom began to save his newspaper route money to buy pigeons. We would go to shows on the weekends and check out all the different breeds. I remember being especially attracted to the powder puff (maybe pouter puff – I don’t know for certain) pigeons and we did buy a few. There were some that did acrobatics high above our heads, I think they were called tumblers. Gee, I have not thought about that childhood memory in a very long time. Thank you for taking me back.

  2. Kate St. Johnon 11 Dec 2008 at 5:16 pm

    Linda, perhaps you mean the Pouter breed of pigeon. Check this website:
    Did they look like this?

  3. Lindaon 12 Dec 2008 at 11:17 am

    I think it is Pouter as per the example. He also had fan tails as I now recall. As a little girl I thought it was powder puff but of course time has damaged some of my memories and some I just seem to make up as I go along. Ah, the joy of “being older”. Thank you for the additional information.

  4. Debbie Prioreon 13 Dec 2008 at 4:33 pm

    It’s so interesting that you should post about pigeons because just down the street in the Children’s Department at Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh I did a program today on pigeons. Nature Detectives is a monthly program that celebrates and encourages that part of a child’s world that can stop and wonder at the gifts of nature. Through stories, open-ended questions, shared experiences, specimens and art activities observing, inquiring, questioning, and creating are encouraged.
    This season our focus is birds. I’m utilizing the citizen sciencing programs available through Cornell Lab of Ornithology – Pigeon Watch being one of them. Your post on pigeons is really helpful because there just doesn’t seem to be as many pigeons around the library as in previous years. Your information was very helpful and was shared with the kids. Thanks so much ! Love your blog! Debbie

  5. George Nagleon 06 Jan 2009 at 7:37 pm

    Pigeons are intelligent and wonderful birds, and as you pointed out have an inspirational and courageous history, especially during World War I. I’ve bonded with a number of pigeons at my back yard bird feeders and consider them great friends. I honor these birds for who they are and their natural place in this world, and not for their service to humans or for their suffering in research labs.

    There are currently two Bills (Senate Bill 151 and House Bill 1543) that the Humane Society and other humane advocates have been trying to get passed at the state capital that will finally stop the infamous pigeon shoots in Pennsylvania. I believe we are the last state that continues to allow this blatant animal cruelty to continue. During these pigeon shoots thousands of pigeons are killed and wounded. 70% are not killed outright. Young boys are paid during the shooting breaks to pick up the dead and wounded pigeons. These boys wring the necks and rip the heads off of the pigeons that are wounded. They put all of these pigeons in plastic bags, so if they missed ripping the heads off of any of the wounded pigeons, they smother to death in the plastic bags. I urge everyone to put an end to this animal cruelty and support these Bills.

  6. Cherylon 12 Jun 2009 at 4:19 pm

    Saturday June 13th 2009
    is National Pigeon Day

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