Homing Pigeons

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Homing Pigeons are a type of domesticated pigeon whose "role as a messenger has a long history" (Encyclopaedia Britannica). They look very much like the common street pigeon, though they are more narrow-bodied, and have larger eyes and beaks.

From "Crisis Communication" by Marjorie Van de Water, 1942.

Contents

Origins: 4,000 Years of Release and Return

"Pigeon Post," Woodcut from A.D. 1481 (Holzmann and Pehrson 7).

Homing pigeons belong to a larger group of domesticated pigeons, which have been in existence for over four thousand years. There are mixed claims regarding exactly when and where homing pigeons were first domesticated and subsequently utilized as a medium. Peter James and Nick Thorpe in Ancient Inventions state that pigeons were first domesticated in Sumer (southern Iraq) around 2000 B.C.: “Most likely it was the Sumerians who discovered that a pigeon or dove will unerringly return to its nest, however far and for however long it is separated from its home” (James and Thorpe 526). But the “first actual records of their use as carrier birds come from Egypt,” although the authors here do not specify when this occurred (James and Thorpe 526). Another account in The Early History of Data Networks holds that “in the days of the Pharaohs the Egyptians announced the arrival of important visitors by releasing pigeons from incoming ships,” which may have been prevalent as early as 2900 B.C. (Holzmann and Pehrson 6). Elsewhere, centuries later, it is said that “the outcomes of the Olympic Games in ancient Greece, around 776 B.C., were sent to Athens by pigeons” (Holzmann and Pehrson 6). Thus, one can infer that in ancient times, people quickly realized the potential that existed in a homing pigeon’s ability to be released at one spot and return to another – their ability as a medium. Beneath their wings was the only option of fast, easy communication that would present itself for millennia, and the state and the public alike took advantage of this intriguing form of airmail.

Training and Carrying

When it comes to animal navigation, it is plain that “birds…have the ability to return to precise, previously occupied locations,” and for this reason homing pigeons can be trained to carry messages from one known place to another (Able 592). Exactly how pigeons are capable of this is still unclear, though it could be attributed to various sensory capabilities and the Earth’s magnetic field (Able 601).

1942: Major John K. Shawvan, a "Pigeoneer" employed by the U.S. Army, with homing pigeons (Van de Water 156).

In 1942, an article entitled “Crisis Communication” was published in the Science News Letter, which outlined requirements for raising pigeons and described how pigeons are trained to deliver messages, chiefly in the United States Army (Van de Water 155). “The birds carry messages written on tissue paper and placed in a tiny container on one leg. They can carry slightly heavier weights on their backs” (Van de Water 155). The article also proclaims that “the raising and training of homing pigeons is an activity requiring much…skill,” for which “it is necessary to know how to give expert care to the birds, to prevent or cure illnesses, repair feathers, and to treat them properly” (Van de Water 155). Homing pigeons would first be taught to recognize the rattle of dry peas in a can as signifying a meal (which would later lure them home), and would gradually learn, over a several-week-long period, how and where to fly (Van de Water 155-156). From this information, it is clear that “maintaining” homing pigeons as media required a great deal of patience, kindness, and expertise, much more than it took to just stick a letter in a mailbox or make a phone call. However, it could be argued that the speed and efficiency of homing pigeons warranted the use of extra skill from these adept trainers called “Pigeoneers,” since such quick communication was necessary in times of crisis.

Speed and Efficiency

For the most part, records indicate that homing pigeons were rather fast flyers when they needed to be: a good homing “racing” pigeon “can achieve speeds of over ninety miles per hour” (James and Thorpe 529). When the ancient Roman light telegraph system collapsed, “pigeon post was left as the fastest means of communication in the world. And so it remained until the perfection of the electric telegraph…and radio” (James and Thorpe 527). Even later during the late nineteenth century, there was a surge in homing pigeon usage in Europe and U.S., which appears to be primarily due to their utilization during the Franco-Prussian War beginning in 1870. Many articles published at the time reported the distances and speeds at which homing pigeons traveled on a regular basis, marveling at how these little birds could handle so much distance and responsibility, and comparing their abilities to modern technologies of their day.

Homing pigeons being released from a cage (Able 595).

In 1877, one such comparison happened in an experimental race between a homing pigeon and a continental mail express train in England. The London Times reported in an article entitled “Wings Against Steam” that the “odds at starting seemed against the bird, and the railway officials predicted the little messenger would be beaten in the race…When the Continental mail express came into Cannon-street station, the bird had been home for twenty minutes, having beaten her Majesty’s royal mail by a time allowance representing eighteen miles” (London Times). In 1881, the New York Times published an article called "A Homing Pigeon's Instinct," which reported on a homing pigeon who "had returned over an unknown road, 185 miles air line, to a place it had left when 4 months old and had not seen in the meantime" (New York Times). These accounts attest to just how useful homing pigeons were at the time, and in many ways these birds represented a traditional form of communication that literally trumped more modern technological advances. Pigeon “fanciers” in the late 1800s and early 1900s could be compared to modern college students who refuse to use Facebook and stick strictly to their cell phones; the newer technology is useful but slightly scary, with the potential for many drawbacks. While pigeoneers who weren’t working for the government could have easily used a telegraph or ultimately, a telephone, they saw many positive qualities in their soon-to-be-“dead” medium.

Government Employees and War-Time Missions

"The Ears and Eyes of the Government"

Camera attached to a homing pigeon. From the International Spy Museum in Washington, D.C.

Homing pigeons provided the option of quick communication through the air that primarily occurred without interruption. It is no wonder, then, that they came to be of “great practical value in ‘important affairs’” (James and Thorpe 525). These affairs were of course governmental, and by 632 A.D. the Moslem Empire had already incorporated pigeon post into an airmail system servicing the state, allowing homing pigeons to aid “the ears and eyes of the government” (James and Thorpe 526). One extremely literal example of this homing pigeon function occurred during the two world wars, when they were utilized as spies: “A camera set to automatic shutter, which was hung around their necks, helped in the reconnoitering of enemy positions…of the hundreds of thousands of spy carrier pigeons deployed, ‘95% completed their missions’” (Dee 1). These pigeon spies continued their service through the 1950s, “earning more medals of honor than any other animal” (Dee 1). Here, we see a homing pigeon not only acting as a medium for humans by carrying messages, but also performing the seemingly exclusive human task of photography, and for a specific purpose - to aid the eyes of the government.

War and Warning

With governmental espionage comes the obvious use of homing pigeons during times of war, either to aid one party in spying (as abovementioned), to gain clues about various locations, or to warn others of impending danger. Such usage makes sense: pigeons blend into the background, fly above the battleground, and can swiftly get messages to and from various locations. This dates back to 2350 B.C. in Mesopotamia, when King Sargon of Akkad had each of his messengers carry a homing pigeon: the pigeon was released if the messenger was attacked en route, which signified that the original message had been “lost” and that a new messenger should be sent down another route (Holzmann and Pehrson 7). With time, the number of homing pigeons employed by various militaries was outstanding: in 1918, the British Air Force alone kept over 20,000 homing pigeons, handled by 380 pigeoneers (Holzmann and Pehrson 8). In the U.S., homing pigeons were "pampered pets" and treated with the utmost care, no doubt to make sure the birds would be anxious to hurry back to their base once their duties were completed (Van de Water 155).
From "Crisis Communication" by Marjorie Van de Water, 1942.
In addition, homing pigeons were “subject to draft” as were young men (Van de Water 156). The fact that pigeons were drafted in impressive numbers could speak to a variety of possibilities. One could infer that the military “employed” tens of thousands of pigeons because they were incredibly efficient and useful in times of an overflow of messages. A more realistic inference is that these birds were caught in the crossfire during times of battle, and often many would not return back to their military bases. With thousands of pigeons and hundreds of pigeoneers on call, one can easily get a sense of how immense this endeavor was.

A particularly intriguing account of pigeon use during World War II comes from a first-hand narrative entitled Most Secret War, written by a veteran named R.V. Jones. He writes, “In areas where we had no direct contact with the Resistance movement, we used to get out bombers to drop homing pigeons in containers which would open after a few hours and release the birds if they had not been found by someone on the ground” (Jones 279). These containers contained questionnaires that asked a series of simple questions that anyone on the ground could (and did) answer, with information that could be helpful to the British. Jones comments later in his book that “the ability of pigeons which had spent their entire lives in England to home back to their bases after we had dropped them on the Continent” made him “wonder” (Jones 507). He also sheds some light onto the use of photography in times of war, writing that “the first use of microphotography in war was in Paris in 1870, when microphotographed messages were sent by carrier pigeon” (Jones 509).

Limitations

The fact that homing pigeons are truly living media presents a whole slew of problems and limitations that one would not likely encounter in other media. As small birds, they are an easy target to be “caught by hawks,” or “fall into the sea during the night” while flying over the ocean (New York Times). There were many reports of pigeons returning severely injured, with “half a tail” for instance, leaving the messenger to wonder “what animal could have chewed up the other half” (New York Times). It was dangerous for pigeons, especially during wartime, to travel long distances. One article reported, “If birds don’t return in two days, it is almost certain that they won’t be seen inside of a week” (New York Times). Hawks, hunters, pigeon fanciers (who would steal the pigeons), and distance itself posed dangers to homing pigeons at flight. In addition, messengers and pigeoneers had to be careful in preparing a homing pigeon for flight, since they could physically injure the animal; one U.S. War Department Technical Manual posed this sentence of caution: "NEVER WIND a string or rubber band around a pigeon's leg because it will stop the circulation and may cause the pigeon to lose its leg."

The Notion of a Network

What’s interesting to note is how, when employed by various governments for centuries, homing pigeons became part of the state’s communication network. Because communication “is the vital blood stream which makes all-out war possible” (Van de Water 154), and which keeps a government running and intact, it is no wonder that in times of war, many conquerors went straight for the homing pigeons. One such instance occurred in 1400 A.D., when Timur the Mongol conquered Iraq and tried to “eradicate the pigeon post along with the rest of the Islamic communications network” (James and Thorpe 527). People literally tried to shut down the network by killing homing pigeons, which in turn would cause the conquered state to crumble from the inside. This notion of a network, and a network’s destruction in times of war, is reminiscent of the worries that persist hundreds of years later regarding communication networks, safety, and terrorism. The reason why there’s no single central “line” for any widely used network (the Internet, telecommunications) is borne of the fear that all communication could be destructed in nuclear warfare should one part of the “network” be destroyed. The systems in place now are meant to prevent the tragedies that occurred centuries ago, when governments’ central “line” of homing pigeons could be killed off, and their communications networks destroyed along with their state.

The Extinction of a Medium

Martha, the last homing pigeon.

It can be argued that the homing pigeon network is in fact the only truly dead medium posted on this page, as the technology used is in a very literal sense extinct (see: Where do media go to die?). Unless there are truly monumental leaps in scientific knowledge regarding the revival of a long dead species (like in Jurassic Park), there is no recreating the homing pigeon. Animals, sadly, do not have easily read and reproducible patents.

The radical materialism called for in the methodology of this project, echoing Derrida's concern for the "subjectile", is painfully clear in the destruction of an entire species of birds in order to send messages- primarily, as can be seen in this dossier, military messages of destruction themselves. One aspect of media- dead or alive- that may bear more intense scrutiny is the externalities of its use, and whether or not these externalities lead to the media's ultimate (self) destruction. What are the material necessities of a media that degrade the long term utility of the media itself, or of the social conditions that cause its use?

In the case of homing pigeons, the answer is quite tragic. Due to the necessity to interrupt communications of enemy forces, as well as hazards such as hawks, weather, and illness (pop and hiss? noise? bad weather?), the population of homing pigeons rapidly decreased until only one pair- a male and a female- remained, held in the Cincinnati Zoo. With the death of the male in 1912, the species -and the medium- were doomed.

Works Cited

  • Able, Kenneth P. "Orientation and Navigation: A Perspective on Fifty Years of Research." The Condor, Vol. 97, No. 2. (May, 1995), pp. 592-604.
  • "A Homing Pigeon's Instinct." New York Times (1857-Current file); Aug 24, 1881; ProQuest Hostorical Newspapers The New York Times (1851-2004) pg. 2
  • "Back But With Half a Tail." New York Times (1857-Current file); Sep 23, 1883; ProQuest Hostorical Newspapers The New York Times (1851-2004) pg. 3
  • Dee, Jim. "Museum of Spies." Foreign Policy in Focus. Albuquerque: Jan 25, 2007.
  • Holzmann, Gerard J. and Björn Pehrson. The Early History of Data Networks. California: IEEE Computer Society Press, 1995.
  • "Homing Pigeons on the Wing: The Birds Released From New Orleans Not Yet Heard From." New York Times (1857-Current file); Jul 12, 1885; ProQuest Hostorical Newspapers The New York Times (1851-2004) pg. 12
  • "Homing Pigeon Sea Service." New York Times (1857-Current file); Sep 2, 1883; ProQuest Hostorical Newspapers The New York Times (1851-2004) pg. 7
  • James, Peter and Nick Thorpe. Ancient Inventions. New York: Ballantine Books, 1994.
  • Jones, R.V. Most Secret War. London: Hamish Hamilton, 1978.
  • Van de Water, Marjorie. "Crisis Communication." The Science News-Letter, Vol. 41, No. 10. (Mar. 7, 1942), pp. 154-157.
  • War Department Technical Manual TM-11-410, "The Homing Pigeon." War Department, U. S. Government Printing Office, January 1945.
  • "Wings Against Steam." London Times. Messenger (1876-1878); Sep 5, 1877; 46, 36, APS Online pg. 6
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