Blue Rock pigeon - 4; pix SShukla; Chandigarh; October 2010It is believed that the pigeons were probably the first birds to be tamed by man. Experts are of the opinion about 5,000 years ago; people living near the Mediterranean Sea raised these birds for food.

 World’s first “parcel post by airmail”

Before the advent of radio, it was the carrier pigeons that were frequently used on the battlefields as a means for a mobile force to communicate with a stationary headquarters. In 6th century BC, Cyrus, king of Persia, used these birds to communicate with various parts of his empire. In Ancient Rome, within many texts, there are references of pigeons being used to send messages by Julius Caesar.

Available records show for hundreds of years these birds have been used for carrying messages from one place to another. Since the time of Romans to this day they are being employed for this purpose. The first recorded case of “parcel post by airmail” dates back to the 10th century when the Caliph Aziz, who ruled North Africa between A.D. 975 and 996, was one day seized with a longing for the sweet cherries of Lebanon. His vizier immediately arranged 600 pigeons to be dispatched from Lebanon, each with a small silk bag containing a cherry, tied to their legs. The cherries arrived safely and the Caliph had his fill.

Carrier pigeon

Carrier or Homing pigeon

Homing pigeons are a variety of domestic pigeons (Columba livia domestica) derived from the rock pigeon, also known as rock dove or Blue rock dove, selectively bred to find its way home over extremely long distances. The wild rock pigeon has an innate homing ability, meaning that it will generally return to its nest and mate. This made it relatively easy to breed from the birds that repeatedly found their way home over long distances. Flights as long as 1,800 km (1,100 miles) have been recorded by birds in competitive pigeon racing. Their average flying speed over moderate distances is around 80 km/h (50 miles per hour) but speeds of up to 140 km/h (90 miles per hour) have been observed in top racers for short distances. Their skills made them used to carry messages as carrier pigeon  or messenger pigeon.

Pigeons that are War heroes

Due to their speed, high altitude flying and homing ability, even through strange territories, pigeons have long been used in wars in the role of messengers. During the Franco-Prussian War (19 July 1870 – 10 May 1871), besieged Parisians used carrier pigeons of the Racing Homer breed to transmit messages outside the city; in response, the besieging German Army employed hawks to hunt the pigeons. The French military used hot air balloons to transport homing pigeons past enemy lines. Microfilm images containing hundreds of messages allowed letters to be carried into Paris by pigeon from as far away as London. More than one million different messages traveled this way during the four-month siege. During the period birds were discovered to be very useful so were used in World War I.

Thirty-two of the 250,000 pigeons used by UK forces in World War II were even awarded medals for valor. Scientists are still discovering more about the incredible abilities of the pigeon. They ceased being used as of 1957.

A carrier pigeon’s job was very dangerous. Nearby enemy soldiers often tried to shoot them down, knowing that released birds were carrying important messages. Some of these pigeons became quite famous among the infantrymen they worked for. One, named “The Mocker,” flew 52 missions before he was wounded. Another, named “Cher Ami,” lost her foot and an eye, but her message got through, saving a large group of surrounded American infantrymen. 

Stuffed Cher Ami on display in the Smithsonian Institution

Stuffed Cher Ami on display in the Smithsonian Institution

World War I

Homing pigeons were used extensively during World War I. The US Army Signal Corps used 600 pigeons in France alone. In 1914 during the First Battle of the Marne, the French army advanced 72 pigeon lofts with the troops. US Navy aviators maintained 12 pigeon stations in France with a total inventory of 1,508 pigeons when the war ended. Pigeons were carried in airplanes to rapidly return messages to these stations; 829 carrier birds flew in 10,995 wartime aircraft patrols. Airmen of the 230 patrols with messages entrusted to pigeons threw the message-carrying pigeon either up or down, depending on the type of aircraft, to keep the pigeon out of the propeller and away from airflow toward the aircraft wings and struts. Of these 219 messages were delivered successfully, only eleven birds went missing in action.

These remarkable birds were considered an essential element of naval aviation communication when the first United States aircraft carrier USS Langley was commissioned on 20 March 1922; the ship included a pigeon house on the stern. The birds were trained at the Norfolk Naval Shipyard while Langley was undergoing conversion. As long as the pigeons were released a few at a time for exercise, they returned to the ship; but when the whole flock was released while Langley was anchored off Tangier Island, they flew south and roosted in the cranes of the Norfolk shipyard. The pigeons never went to sea again.

No story of ‘bird of war’ will be complete without the mention of famous homing pigeon Cher Ami (French for “dear friend”). It was decorated with military honor by being awarded the French medal Croix de Guerre for its heroics in the World War I. Cher Ami delivered 12 important messages during the Battle of Verdun.

It was donated by the pigeon fanciers of UK to US Army Signal Corps for use in war in France and was trained by American experts for army purposes. Cher Ami played major role in saving 194 US soldiers of the “Lost Battalion” of the 77th Infantry Division in the Battle of Argonne in October 1918. The bird is now stuffed, and is on display in the Smithsonian Institution.

The story goes like this, in 1918 on 3rd October Charles Whittlesey, nicknamed “Galloping Charlie”, and 500 plus men under his command were trapped on the side of a hill behind enemy lines. Encircled by enemy forces (Germans), without ammunition and food they were also facing friendly firing from the allied forces that had no idea about their location. Many personnel died on the first day itself. By second day little more than 200 were alive without any help and food. Whittlesey was left with no other option except for sending message for help by pigeon. As the first bird was released with message – “Many wounded. We cannot evacuate” – it was shot down by the enemy forces. Second pigeon was set free with another message – “Men are suffering. Can support be sent?” It too was shot dead. Now only the ‘Cher Ami’ was left. A canister with a note – “We are along the road parallel to 276.4. Our own artillery is dropping a barrage directly on us. For heaven’s sake, stop it!” – tied to its left leg. As the bird flew out of a thicket, after the release, it received shower of German bullets zipping through all around it. Within seconds Cher Ami was hit and the men of the Lost Battalion watched helplessly their last hope dropping down to the ground, but the bird didn’t give up, it soon rose like a phoenix and took to wings. With an eye lost, left leg that had the note attached broken and hanging by just a tendon, a shot through the breast and with blood soaked body, Cher Ami landed at his loft at division headquarters 25 miles away in 25 minutes. Within minutes reinforcement was sent and the lives of 194 personals were saved.

This courageous performance made Cher Ami hero of the 77th Infantry Division. After a good medical treatment and care bird’s life was saved but it lost its leg, so a wooden leg was made for it. General John J. Pershing came personally to see Cher Ami off when time came to send the bird back to U.S. from France. After reaching back home, in recognition of the flying hero’s services, it  was made the mascot of the Department of Service and was decorated with the Croix de Guerre, a Medal with a palm Oak Leaf Cluster, for the gallantry service in conveying 12 important messages in Verdun. Cher Ami died on June 13, 1919 at Fort Monmouth, New Jersey. In 1931 he got place into the Racing Pigeon Hall of Fame besides numerous other recognitions.

A B-type bus from London converted into a pigeon loft for use in Northern France and Belgium during the Great War

A B-type bus from London converted into a pigeon loft for use in Northern France and Belgium during the Great War

World War II and later

Again in the World War II, these birds proved very effective carriers for sending secret defense messages from one military base to another. The British Army alone used about 250,000 homing pigeons. The Dickin Medal, the highest possible decoration for valor given to animals, was awarded to 32 pigeons, including the United States Army Pigeon Service’s G.I. Joe and the Irish pigeon Paddy.

The UK maintained the Air Ministry Pigeon Section during World War II and for a while thereafter. A Pigeon Policy Committee made decisions about the uses of pigeons in military contexts. The head of the section, Lea Rayner, reported in 1945 that pigeons could be trained to deliver small explosives or bio-weapons to precise targets. The ideas were not taken up by the committee, and in 1948 the UK military stated that pigeons were of no further use. However, the UK security service MI5 was still concerned about the use of pigeons by enemy forces. Until 1950, they arranged for 100 birds to be maintained by a civilian pigeon fancier in order to prepare counter measures. The Swiss army disbanded its Pigeon section in 1996.

Modern China too has trained these birds for military purposes. Capital of the nation, Beijing, has the world’s maximum number of pigeon breeders. If we look into history, the simple training of these birds in China dates back to Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), but when Cultural Revolution (1966-76) came to China the government banned pigeon races because they were seen as the signs of capitalism. According to an estimate the country has over three lakh (300,000) pigeon racers, with over 30,000 in the capital alone.

Crewman with homing pigeons carried in bombers as a means of communications in the event of a crash, ditching or radio failure

Crewman with homing pigeons carried in bombers as a means of communications in the event of a crash, ditching or radio failure

Information provided on the defense ministry website quotes a September (2009) report which says, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has trained a military pigeon team of about 50,000 birds in Yunnan province, near north-east India, to perform army tasks in a ‘secret and concealed manner’ to avoid detection by radars. The objective behind employment and deployment of these birds is to provide ‘frontier and coastal defense.’

The Chengdu Military Area Command was quoted as saying, “Some species of PLA pigeons are capable of flying through the dense forests, over the high mountains, oceans and deserts to perform special tasks anytime in any climate.” He further adds, “They are hardly affected by radar, climate, airwave and landscape, having amazing determination in returning home. They can fly at 170 km/h……a pigeon can easily carry a 4 GB memory chip.”

Another success story of winged carriers relates to the police department of Orissa (modern Odisha), a state of Indian Union, which had a squad of about 700 pigeons distributed in various districts of the state. Pigeon service came into operation in 1946; it was a time when the state police did not have a proper communication system and it had to purchase a few trained carriers from the army after the World War II was over.

The service won accolades from the first Prime Minister of the country Pt. Jawaharlal Nehru who was on a visit to inaugurate the Hirakund dam in 1948. He found the service quite useful. Before he could proceed to another destination the prime minister’s message was sent by a carrier pigeon stating “the arrangements for the public meeting should not be such as to separate the speaker too much from the audience.” Message reached Cuttack in less than five-and-a-half hours, whereas it took Nehru more than six hours to reach the city. He was surprised when told that his message brought by a pigeon had reached before him.

In last so many years, these birds have proved invaluable especially during floods and cyclone. In 1982 floods in Banki (Odisha), pigeons were the only mode of communication after the wireless service was disrupted.

It is reported that the department runs three types of pigeon services, namely static, boomerang and mobile. While static is a one-way service required during the natural calamities, the boomerang service is two-way. Under the mobile service, birds are carried to remote places and then used to maintain contacts between different sections. 

It is unfortunate that with the popularization of wireless communications this useful service is now being “decommissioned” in a heartless and thankless manner.        

Pigeons have very strong and sturdy wing muscles, which make up over a third of their body weight. This is the reason they are able to undertake long journeys. For example, a carrier pigeon can travel about 1,000 km in a day with a top speed of up to 80 km an hour.

There are many examples where these small birds, have performed remarkable feats of endurance. In one such instance, perhaps one of the most outstanding, the 1st Duke of Wellington’s homing pigeon, which is said to have flown a direct route of 8,700 km, but the fact, is that it flew about 11,255 km to avoid the Sahara desert. This bird was released on 8th April 1845 from a sailing ship off the Ichabo Islands, West Africa, and dropped dead 55 days later on 1st June, only a mile from its loft at Nine Elms, Wandsworth in London.

There are other instances also in which a homing pigeon flew 1,887 km in 15 days into Britain, while others have journeyed over 1,600 km on four occasions.

Homing pigeons orientate with the help of their beaks

Although it has long been known that birds have the capability to use the Earth’s magnetic field for navigation, but how it is done has not yet been explained.  However, a team of German scientists, led by Gerta Fleissner discovered that homing pigeons possess iron-containing structures in their beaks, which allow them to analyze the earth’s magnetic field – much like a compass. To be more precise, iron-containing subcellular particles of maghemite and magnetite were discovered in sensory dendrites of the skin lining the upper beak. Through the signals picked up, birds can work out where they are and set out on the best course home.

Homing pigeon Navigation -- (Graphic Source - London Evening Standard)

Homing pigeon Navigation — (Graphic Source – London Evening Standard)

The dendrites in the pigeon bill are positioned in an intricate three-dimensional pattern with different spatial orientation designed to analyze the three components of the magnetic field vector separately.  They respond to the Earth’s external magnetic field in a very sensitive and precise manner, thus acting as a three-axis magnetometer. Thus, the birds may sense the magnetic field independent of their motion and posture and can distinguish their geographical position.

In the second decade of 21st century a French team found that the pigeons can memorize 1,200 pictures. However, despite such impressive memories, pigeons are not the most intelligent birds, according to researchers. A team in 2005 judged the intelligence of a range of birds and concluded that crows, rooks, jays and ravens topped the IQ league, while the New World quail earned the dubious honor of being the most stupid.

Like pigeons, many other migrating birds too display an extraordinary ability to fly thousands of miles to return to the same garden or a tree year after year. Scientists believe they may also be containing similar iron- containing cells in their beaks. Fleissner pointed out similar iron-containing cells had been found in the beaks of warblers, chickens and robins and so it may well turn out to be the way that other species also navigate. “We expect that the pigeon-type receptor might turn out to be a universal feature of all birds,” she said.

In the past, scientists have suggested that the birds use position of sun and stars to find their way, although in 2004 researchers found that many of them follow roads rather than their internal compass to plan their route. According to the recent findings by Italian scientists birds can create ‘odour maps’ of areas they fly over, which may help them find their way. However scientists have long believed that they can in some way use the natural magnetism of the earth to navigate.

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