Pigeons get a bad press usually, and many city dwellers regard them as an urban pest. It is true that feral pigeons who gather in large numbers can be problematic. However, pigeons have been domesticated and trained by humans for centuries, providing a valuable and sometimes even lifesaving service as carrier birds.
The ancient Romans first took advantage of the pigeon’s exceptional navigational abilities, to send messages during times of war, and to facilitate trading agreements. It was said that during the first Olympic Games which were held in 776BC, athletes sent news of their achievements to their families via homing pigeons.
It is thought that pigeons have developed their incredible homing instincts because they are migratory birds, who are attuned to the earth’s magnetic fields to a highly sensitive degree. They have an instinctive ability to read the signals, much like an inbuilt satnav system. It seems that scientists haven’t quite worked out exactly how the process works yet.
The pigeon can reach an impressive speed of over 77mph, which made them ideal for carrying urgent messages long distances, in the days before air travel or telecommunications were widely developed. In fact, a pigeon can find its way back to a nest from a distance of up to 1,000 miles.
France had an official pigeon postal service in the 19th century, and post was regularly sent via messenger pigeons between Paris and London. During WWI, despite much more advanced communication networks, pigeons were used in great numbers by allied forces, to raise alarms, warnings, and distress signals.
In fact, there were two Pigeon Corps established during WWI which by the end of the conflict, consisted of some 22,000 pigeons and crewed by 400 men, who oversaw 150 mobile pigeon lofts, according to the Kashmir Observer. The birds carried messages in small gas cannisters attached to their legs.
They were sent to signal new invasions, released from crashed airplanes to send for help, and dispatched behind enemy lines to obtain information about movements, should they be found by an ally.
Despite the sad fact that the majority of the pigeons died during the operations, they were found to be so useful that they were again extensively deployed during WWII.
One exceptional story stands out is that of Cher Ami, who was sent by a major from an encircled US battalion in Argonne, France, during October 1918. Under heavy enemy fire, many soldiers had already died, and then the troops came under friendly fire from their own artillery who weren’t aware of the situation.
Two unsuccessful messages were dispatched, before Cher Ami was sent by Major Charles White Whittlesey with the desperate message for the troops to desist fire and send help. Cher Ami was shot down by German soldiers on his way home, but managed to regain flight and make the remaining 25-mile journey back to his loft.
He had been shot through the breast, blinded in one eye, and one of his legs was hanging off. His handlers retrieved the message and sent help, saving the lives of 194 men.
Cher Ami’s life was saved by army medics, but he sadly died from his injuries a year later. He was subsequently awarded the Croix de Guerre Medal with a Palm Oak Leaf Cluster for his bravery.
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