Homing Pigeons

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Podcast Transcript

Before the development of electricity and electronic communications, the fastest information could travel was the speed of a horse. Maybe a ship might have been a bit faster depending on the route, but for the most part, the speed of information was limited to the speed of a human. 

However, there was one exception to this. It was a communications method that could only carry small amounts of information; it only worked in one direction, and the number of messages you could send was limited, but it was faster than anything else. 

It was used for centuries and was still relied upon even after the development of radio.

Learn more about homing pigeons and how they were used throughout history on this Episode of Everything Everywhere Daily. 

You might be thinking that an episode on pigeons is one of the less serious episodes I’ve done. In a world with instantaneous global communications, the idea of sending messages by pigeons seems rather antiquated and maybe even cute. 

However, I assure you, this is a very serious topic. Homing pigeons once played an incredibly important role, and there are numerous documented cases of these birds saving the lives of thousands of people. 

So, what are homing pigeons, and how exactly do they work?

Many, but not all, birds are migratory. They have an innate sense of direction. Some species of birds are capable of traveling halfway across the globe during their migration and then flying back again later in the year. 

We don’t know exactly how birds are able to navigate such long distances, but it probably has something to do with using the Earth’s magnetic field. 

In some species of birds, this navigational ability manifests itself as a homing instinct. Rather than migrating long distances, they are able to find their way back to their nest. 

One of the birds that can do this is a certain species of domesticated pigeon. The domestic pigeon might be the world’s oldest domesticated bird. It was domesticated sometime around 10,000 years ago and it was bread from the rock dove. 

If you’ve seen a pigeon out in the wild, what you’ve seen is actually a feral version of the domestic pigeon, which descended from pigeons that escaped years ago. 

Domestic pigeons were originally domesticated for food, but at some point, someone realized that some of these pigeons had a special ability. They were able to fly back to their nest regardless of where they were released. 

As with bird migrations, we aren’t totally sure how birds do it, but it is probably a combination of magnetism and landmark identification.

It was then realized that short messages could be attached to the legs of these pigeons, enabling them to deliver information rapidly.

The pigeons that showed this ability began to be selectively bred with other pigeons, which is how the domesticated homing pigeon was created. 

The first evidence of using pigeons to send information was approximately 3,500 years ago in Ancient Egypt. 

Pliny the Elder wrote about pigeons being used by the Roman military for communications.

The Ancient Greeks used pigeons to transmit the results of the Olympic Games.

The Islamic Caliphate, centered in Baghdad, used messenger pigeons as a means of communication, and Ghengic Khan also used pigeons. 

The Republic of Genoa developed a series of defensive watchtowers in the Mediterranean, and each one had homing pigeons to send notification quickly back to Genoa in case of attack. 

As antiquated as sending messages via pigeon seems today, messenger pigeons only grew in popularity during the 19th and early 20th centuries. Even in a world with telegraph lines, telegraph cables didn’t go everywhere, and there was a need for messages to be sent from soldiers in the field back to their headquarters. 

During the Franco-Prussian War, German forces laid siege to Paris and surrounded the city, cutting all lines of communications. The only communication in or out of the city was by messenger pigeon. During the siege, pigeons carried thousands of messages. 

Here, I should note, because I haven’t mentioned it yet, that homing pigeons only work one way. Pigeons have a homing instinct, which lets them return to their roots. However, they can’t go back and forth between arbitrary points.

If you want to send a message back to a central command post, you must bring a pigeon with you. During the siege of Paris, the roosts were located in the city. So, how did they get pigeons out of the city if all access in and out of the city was closed?

They would actually send pigeons in balloons. People outside the city would pick the pigeons up, attach messages to them, and send them back to Paris.

The pigeon service during the siege of Paris also was one of the first uses of microfilm. By shrinking down multiple letters to a single photographic image, an estimated million communications were sent during the four months of the siege, using around 1000 pigeon dispatches. 

Other countries observed the success of the pigeon communication system during the Franco-Prussian War and adopted their own pigeon service in the years that followed.

By the First World War, almost every major power had a pigeon service save for Britain which had terminated their service prior to the war..

During the Battle of the Marne, the French brought 72 portable pigeon lofts with them for communications. 

In 1917, the United States Army Signal Corps established the US Army Pigeon Breeding and Training Center in Fort Monmouth, N.J. During the war, the pigeons more than proved their worth. 

The most famous case was that of the pigeon named Cher Ami, which is French for “dear friend.” 

Cher Ami was actually a British pigeon that was donated to the US Army Signal Corps. It flew 12 missions successfully during the war, but it was its last mission, which is the one it is remembered for. 

On October 3, 1918, during the Battle of the Argonne Forest, a unit of 550 men of the 77th Division led by Major Charles White Whittlesey was trapped in a low-lying area behind enemy lines. 

In addition to being behind enemy lines without food or ammunition, American forces were starting to fire on their position, not knowing they were there.

Despite not having food or ammo, they did have pigeons. They attempted to send a message, but the Germans, suspecting they might communicate by pigeon, shot the first one down. 

They sent out another pigeon, which was also shot by the Germans. 

Finally, Cher Ami was sent. The message attached to his leg read as follows:

We are along the road paralell [sic] to 276.4. Our own artillery is dropping a barrage directly on us. For heavens sake stop it.

When Cher Ami was set loose, the Germans saw it and fired. The pigeon fell into some brush, having been it. However, it soon began flying again and made it back to its roost at division headquarters, approximately 25 miles or 40 kilometers away. He made the trip in just 25 minutes. 

When the pigeon team found the bird, he had been shot through the chest, had lost an eye, and had one leg dangling by a tendon. Medics did what they could to treat Cher Ami. 

However, the message got through, and 194 were saved. The unit was dubbed the Lost Battalion and became one of the most celebrated stories to come out of the war. 

Cher Ami was awarded the Croix de Guerre Medal with a palm Oak Leaf Cluster by the nation of France. 

The story of Cher Ami became known to almost all American schoolchildren after the war. 

However, Cher Ami was not the only pigeon hero of the war. 

Another pigeon by the name of President Wilson, just a day after Cher Ami’s flight, was sent on behalf of an infantry unit that was under fire. Like Chier Ami, President Wilson was hit, but he managed to deliver his message for artillery support.

The was one German pigeon that was captured by the Americans and became a breeding pigeon after the war. Named Kaiser, he remained in service until his death in 1948. He was the only pigeon to have served in both world wars.

The pigeon service proved a success, so it continued after the war. The United States Army Pigeon Service remained, and the British resurrected its pigeon service in 1939, the National Pigeon Service.

The American Pigeon Service had 3,150 soldiers and 54,000 war pigeons in its ranks going into the Second World War. The British had over 200,000 homing pigeons in service across all branches during the war 

As in the First World War, pigeons again proved surprisingly useful, even in a war that extensively used radio communications. 

When the Allies landed on the beach of Normandy in 1944, they didn’t have any secure radio communications and didn’t want to give away their position in the first hours of the invasion. So, they used homing pigeons to send the first messages of the successful landing back to Britain. 

The first pigeon to get back was named Gustav.

Perhaps the most famous pigeon of the war was named G.I. Joe. On October 18, 1943, he saved the lives of approximately 1,000 British soldiers stationed in the Italian village of Calvi Vecchia. 

The soldiers were at risk of being bombed by their own Allied forces, who were unaware that the British had recently captured the village from German forces. Released over 20 miles away from British headquarters, G.I. Joe flew this distance in an astonishing 20 minutes, delivering the message in time to call off the air strike only minutes before it was scheduled to begin.

In 1943, the UK established the Dickin Medal to honor heroic animals that served during the Second World War. It has been likened to the Victoria Cross for animals, and of the 54 medals awarded, 32 were given to pigeons.

Needless to say, organized homing pigeon services didn’t survive very long after the war. The United States Army Pigeon Service was formally discontinued in 1957. The British National Pigeon Service was retired in 1945.

In a world with cell phones, fiber optic cables, and communication satellites, homing pigeons might seem like a bit of an anachronism. However, in 2016, ISIS was using pigeons for communications because other modern modes of communication were too risky.

Today, homing pigeons are raised mostly as a hobby, and some enthusiasts race them in competitions. 

However, there have been a few people who have wondered if pigeons could work with modern communications or perhaps compete with them.

In 1990, in an April Fools joke, a proposal submitted to the Internet Engineering Task Force, written by David Waitzman, suggested the creation of what he dubbed IP over Avian Carriers or IPoAC.

In 2001, a user group in Bergan, Norway, actually implemented the IPoAC protocol with pigeons. They sent nine packets of data over 5 kilometers….and for the record, the network recorded a packet loss ratio of 55% and ping times ranging from 50 to 100 minutes.

However, an even better test was conducted in 2023. A YouTuber by the name of Jeff Geerling tested a gigabit internet connection against a pigeon carrying a 3-terabyte UBS drive. The pigeon was sent at the same time that a large file began being copied over the internet. 

The pigeon traveled only a mile, but it was able to transfer data significantly faster than the internet connection. In fact, he extrapolated that a pigeon with three terabytes of storage would be faster for all distances less than 600 miles or 965 kilometers. To the best of my knowledge, a test at those distances has not yet been attempted.

The era of the homing pigeon has ended. Nonetheless, you should at least recognize that for several thousand years, the fastest means of communication available to humans was……the pigeon.

The Executive Producer of Everything Everywhere Daily is Charles Daniel. 

The associate producers are Peter Bennett and Cameron Kieffer. 

Today’s review comes from listener Klc#2 on Apple Podcasts in the United States. They write:

Varied and interesting

I love to learn and love Everything Everywhere Daily. The content spans such a wide range that it is interesting and engaging! I have been listening for less than a year, so I have not made it back through all of the previous podcasts yet! I have recommended this to many friends. Thanks for your research work on putting these together.

Thanks, Klc#2! Keep at it, going through the past episodes. Then, one day, sooner rather than later, you too will become a member of the completionist club. On that day, you will be welcome into the completionist clubhouse with open arms. 

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