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.

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From "Crisis Communication" by Marjorie Van de Water, 1942.
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Homing pigeons being released from a cage (Able 595).

Origins: 4,000 Years of Release and Return

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"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

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).

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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, Efficiency, and Limitations

Various Uses

"The Ears and Eyes of the Government"

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From "Crisis Communication" by Marjorie Van de Water, 1942.
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Camera attached to a homing pigeon. From the International Spy Museum in Washington, D.C.

War and Warning

Pleasure and Play

Implications

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.
  • 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.
  • 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.