Carrier pigeons are renowned for their capacity to find their way back home over great distances from an unfamiliar point of release. Pigeons are intelligent birds with a cognitive ability superior to that of a 3 year old human child.
Pigeon belongs to Rocky Mountain Adventures carry tiny ‘backpacks’ with memory sticks. Photo source: dailymail
Carrier pigeons, also known as homing pigeons, were used to carry messages since the time of Ancient Egypt. Pigeons were domesticated more than 5,000 years ago. Carrier pigeons are descendants of rock pigeons native to Europe, North Africa and South Asia. Pigeon post was the most efficient system of messages delivery for all the centuries during the Dark and the Middle Ages until the invention of the telegraph in the mid 19th century.
Julius Reuters, founder of the world’s largest news agencies, had previously used pigeons to fly stock prices between Aachen and Brussels. Carrier pigeons were faster than the railway. They were doing the journey between Aachen and Brussels in 2 hours while the train reached in 6 hours. The pigeon post operated for a year until 1851 when it was superseded by a direct telegraph link.
Military Use of Pigeons
In the 17th and and 18th centuries carrier pigeons were heavily used to send strategic military information between posts.
Even during the World War I homing pigeons played a critical part in military operations. They were carrying messages across enemy line with an astonishing success rate of 95% . It seems that during both World Wars there were trials to use them to capture photos with the help of small cameras attached to their body, but it is uncertain whether the technique really worked. For their contribution during the World Wars thirty-two pigeons were decorated with the Dickin Medal.
A carrier pigeon with a camera probably taken during World War I. Photo source: theaustralian
How do they do it?
Basically pigeons are able to carry messages only one way: from a specific location on the way to their home. But if the food is placed at one location, while their home is at another location, pigeons can be trained to fly back and forth up to two times a day.
The big question remains on how they succeed to find their way home. Pigeons use an internal clock, a compass and their nose. According to Britain researchers, during their journey the birds follow man made landmarks like roads, highways and even go around roundabouts.
Carrier pigeons nowadays
The last European country that had retired carrier pigeons from army was Switzerland, in the 1970s. It seems that China has continued to maintain thousands of carrier pigeons for military communications duty.
According to an article that appeared in The New York Times in 2008, pigeons are still used in Middle East war zones to signal the presence of military troops.
In 2010, during Cuban elections, carrier pigeons were used as an alternative means of communication in places distant from Cuban urban centres.
In India, in the Western state of Orissa, the last messaging service using pigeons was disbanded in 2006. The service worked for 60 years and it was used by the police force to deliver messages in the mountains or forests.
Rocky Mountain Adventures based in Fort Collins, USA, found an interesting way to use carrier pigeons. The smart birds are used to deliver the digital-photo memory sticks of the rafting trip that visitors are having on the Poudre River. The film is introduced in the specially designed Lycra backpacks attached to the birds. The pigeons fly back to their home at the Fort Collins post where the staff develop the film. This way, the visitors will see their photos immediately as they get back from the river.
Nowadays citizens usually see pigeons just as as real trouble for their cars. Very few of us realize that carrier pigeons are actually the predecessors of the smartphones. What are your feelings about pigeons?