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.