|Engraving of "carrier pigeons" (actually probably homing pigeons), with messages attached. |
(Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Pigeons were used during the Roman Empire and by the Egyptians as far back as 2900 B.C. when incoming ships released pigeons to carry news of important guests arriving. Ancient Greece used homing pigeons to carry news of winners of Olympic competitions back to hometowns. During the 11th century in Baghdad, the one-way message system of carrier pigeons was developed. Until 1844, upon the invention of the telegraph, carrier pigeons were the fastest and most reliable form of message-transmission. Pigeons can reach top speeds of 45 miles per hour.
Carrier Pigeons Save the Day
During the Franco-Prussian war of 1870-1871, occupying forces cut the telegraph wires of Paris. City residents sent carrier pigeons out of the city via hot-air balloon, releasing one pigeon after the balloon made it safely out of the city, to alert residents that the pigeons had made it out. The pigeons, with messages attached, were released back into the city, carrying their messages between dwellings. From that war, on, military commanders were outfitted with regiments of carrier pigeons, trained to fly back to lofts beyond the war front. The messages they carried could then be read and utilized by military commanders.
During World War I, the most famous homing pigeon of all, Cher Ami which is French for 'My Friend', saved the lost battalion of American soldiers from being surrounded by the Germans and fired upon by friendly fire of fellow American soldiers aiming for the Germans and missing them. The pigeon flew through a torrent of bullets to deliver its message to a military post away from the front, alerting commanders that the battalion needed help. For its honorable and brave deed, Cher Ami was awarded the French Cross of War medal. Upon its' passing, the bird was stuffed and put on display at the Smithsonian Institute. Military personnel also used carrier pigeons during World War II and the Korean War. Many pigeons from each war earned military honors for their contribution.
Carrier Pigeons are One-Way Messengers
Carrier pigeons, or homing pigeons, are trained to return back to a specific pigeon loft. Therefore, message sending and receiving only works in one direction. The message sender must have a pigeon that will fly back to the message receiver. Messages are written on very light paper (cigarette paper) and rolled into tiny canisters affixed to the bird's legs. This method of communication is called Pigeon Post.
Research indicates that these birds use a variety of mechanisms in order to home in on their destination. Magnetite, a substance in the bird's beak, works via the trigeminal nerve to sense magnetic fields in the earth. Recent studies also indicate that olfactory senses help the birds navigate. Once they get close to their home destination, it is hypothesized that carrier pigeons also navigate by sight, recognizing familiar landmarks.
Modern Uses of Carrier Pigeons
Homing pigeons are no longer routinely used for message delivery, with the last official military regiments in India retiring a few years ago due to the rise of internet communications. Carrier pigeons first lost their jobs with the invention of the telegraph but were widely used again for about 75 years in military services around the world.
Carrier pigeons have even been used to transmit internet signals! The IP address IPoAC (Internet Protocol over Avian Carrier) was created in the late 1990s. Until April 28, 2001, nobody had used this IP. The Bergen Linux User Group decided to transmit data via the IPoAC and, with the help of a local Carrier Pigeon enthusiasts club, successfully transmitted several packets of data. Unfortunately, some of the data was lost, as some of the pigeons did not return to their home lofts!
Now that the internet has taken over as the fastest means of communication, homing pigeons are mainly used for pigeon racing. The sport is huge in Belgium, with daily pigeon weather reports broadcast over radio stations. In the United States, the American Racing Pigeon Union regulates pigeon racing and keeps a registry of pigeon band numbers. All domesticated homing pigeons are outfitted with a band at the age of five weeks, which contains a number and a chip that is scanned when the pigeons return home during pigeon races.
Raising and Training Carrier Pigeons
To raise a successful flock of carrier pigeons, you must create a pigeon loft. The loft should be composed of indoor and outdoor space. Pigeons need places to rest or roost, food and sources of water to drink and bathe in.
Pigeons mate for life. When pigeons are born, they are covered in yellow down. They grow their grey-colored feathers soon after birth. At the age of four weeks, the chicks will begin flying around the pigeon loft. At six weeks, they can fly outside of the loft, and at two months can begin road training. Pigeons fly one way, and that is home. When training a homing pigeon, take it further away each time you release it. Once it has successfully returned home 40 times, it is ready to race.
Carrier pigeons are the unsung heroes of military conflicts past. They were the first official sports announcers and kept war-weary citizens in touch with each other. Now used for racing, and, in some parts of the world, message-sending for special occasions, pigeons continue to be part of world culture.