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 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).

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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 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 fasted 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.

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 seem to be a lot like 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.

Various Uses

"The Ears and Eyes of the Government"

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

Homing pigeons provided the option of quick communication through the air that generally 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 function of photography, and for a specific purpose.

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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



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
  • 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.
  • "Wings Against Steam." London Times. Messenger (1876-1878); Sep 5, 1877; 46, 36, APS Online pg. 6