In ancient times pigeons were the fastest way to send messages.
There are writings that report that the Persian King Cyrus
used birds to send information, and the Greeks used homing
pigeons to send news of Olympic victories. During the eighth
century in France, only the nobles had homing pigeons and
the birds were considered a symbol of power and prestige,
until the French revolution changed things so that the common
man could have them. Even Julius Caesar used homing pigeons
to carry messages of importance.
In 1870 the Franco-Prussian war broke out and Paris was
surrounded and cut off. The people in Paris figured out
they could use hot air balloons to carry baskets of homing
pigeons and other letters out of the city and the friendly
French in the countryside could send messages back into
Paris via the homing pigeons. This allowed the trapped people
of Paris to communicate and maintain their hope and morale
during the war. It was about this time that microphotography
was developed in England, but used to great effect in this
war to exchange many military instructions quickly via homing
pigeon. The microphotography allowed a pigeon to carry as
many as 30,000 messages to be carried by a single bird!
The four month siege of Paris saw 400 birds deliver nearly
115,000 government messages and about a million private
messages according to historians.
By 1914 when the war to end all wars (WWI) broke out the
European armies were widely using homing pigeons in their
war communications. United States General John Pershing
saw the birds in use and ordered the Army Signal Corp to
begin putting together their own pigeon communication system.
It is believed that over half a million birds were used
by the warring armies as reliable communication. These special
birds had a 95 percent success rate in WWI delivering their
messages and proved to be a lifeline for the troops on the
front line. Remember this war was before modern radio and
the telegraph was the other more-modern option for communicating.
But this wire based system was easily cut in two or tapped
into by enemy forces if given the chance. Others used the
homing pigeon like aircraft pilots on recon missions, sailors
off the coast, and even tanks on the move. WWI was the height
of homing pigeon used for military purposes. There were
many pigeon heroes and several of these war birds received
One of the most famous WWI pigeon stories to be told is
that of the ”lost battalion” in France that
was saved by a pigeon named Cher Ami. This 600 man battalion
was being shelled and wounded by friendly fire because they
advanced too far into enemy territory. Their only hope of
communication was by bird and Cher Ami gave it his all.
The German soldiers saw the bird take flight and began firing
upon the bird wounding it but not enough to take away its
will to fly the 25 miles back to the command post. It arrived
with one eye shot out, a bullet in its breast and most of
the leg missing that had the message capsule still attached
– hanging on only by a tendon. The message stopped
the shelling and the battalion was later saved. After healing,
Cher Ami went on to receive an honorary service cross and
taken back to America and lived until 1919. Later he was
mounted and then placed on display in the Smithsonian Institute.
When WWII broke out in the early 40’s the homing
pigeon was brought back into service on both sides of the
war. Many people do not realize that the head of the SS,
Hemlic Hemmler, was also head of the national pigeon organization
at one time and felt that the Nazis would benefit by taking
over the national pigeon organization and the use of its
members and birds. The Germans had 50,000 birds ready for
use when the war had broken out. Unfortunately for America,
the US Army Signal Corp did not maintain its pigeon program
and to rebuild it from scratch. The Corp solicited birds
from fanciers that were willing to donate them, and looked
for new draftees that had a poultry or pigeon background
to work as pigeoneers.
Although the radio was developed at this time to carry
voice, whereas Morse code was used in WWI, the homing pigeon
was sometimes an excellent choice for communicating while
maintaining radio silence. As one might expect radio direction
finders were used by both sides to locate and try taking
out each other’s forces. The homing pigeon was also
found to be a capable airborne means flying a camera over
enemy locations to learn more about troop strength and location.
A camera was mounted underneath the pigeon behind enemy
lines and allowed to fly home where the camera was examined.
These photos might show actual troops and equipment or if
flying over a German town might show certain type factories
or other military targets for bombing.
Spies on both sides used pigeons to carry information and
sometimes the birds were asked to fly the English Channel
between Great Britain and France. The English and the Germans
developed their own falcon program to intercept birds but
they were just as likely to intercept one of their birds
and stop the intended communication from ever arriving.
WWII came to an end and in 1956 the US Army shut down the
Pigeon Corp. The service of the homing pigeon went dormant
until the 1970’s when the US Coast Guard started using
them again but in a different way. During the 1940’s
pigeons in a Tufts University lab had proven the exceptional
ability to pick out certain shapes and colors in exchange
for food. The US Coast Guard decided the same abilities
could be useful while searching for men and equipment in
open waters so they set up some testing using a small observation
bubble on the bottom of some their helicopters stationed
near San Francisco. This project called Project Sea Hunt
used three pigeons that faced 120 degrees from each other
so that they covered the entire 360 degrees under the helicopter.
The pigeons were 92 percent reliable in finding the test
subjects or objects where humans were found to be in the
30-40 percent range. The project never got out of the testing
phase and was ended in 1983 due to federal budget cuts so
the birds did not get a chance to actually save any lives.
(Excerpts taken from the History Channels production called
Animals in Action, and Jerome Pratt’s book titled
NEHU.40.NS.1 - Blue Cheq. Hen "Winkie"
MEPS.43.1263 - Red Cheq. Cock "George"
SURP.41.L.3089 - White Hen "White Vision"
NPS.41.NS.4230 - "Beachbomber"
NPS.42.31066 - Grizzle Cock "Gustav"
NPS.43.94451 - Dark Cheq. Cock "Paddy"
NURP.36.JH.190 - Dark Cheq. Hen "Kenley Lass"
NURP.38.EGU.242 - Red Cheq. Cock "Commando"
NPS.42.NS.44802 - Dark Cheq. Cock "Flying Dutchman"
NURP.40.GVIS.453- Blue Cock "Royal Blue"
NURP.41.A.2164 - "Dutch Coast"
NPS.41.NS.2862 - Blue Cock "Navy Blue"
NPS.42.NS.15125 - Mealy Cock "William of Orange"
NPS.43.29018 - Dark Cheq. Cock "Ruhr Express"
NPS.42.21610 - B.C. Hen "Scotch Lass"
NU.41.HQ.4373 - Blue Cock "Billy"
NURP.39.NRS.144 - Red Cock "Cologne"
NPS.42.36392 - "Maquis"
41.BA.2793 - "Broad Arrow"
NURP.39.SDS.39 - "All Alone"
NURP.37.CEN.335 - "Mercury"
NURP.41.SBC.219 - Cock "Duke of Normandy"
NURP.43.CC.2418 - B.C. Hen
NURP.40.WLE.249 - "Mary"
NURP.41.DHZ.56 - "Tommy"
42.WD.593 - "Princess"
USA.43.SC.6390 - "G.I. Joe"