Although we don’t use carrier pigeons to send messages anymore, they were once used extensively. With a short rolled up message inserted into a little tube attached to their leg a pigeon could deliver a message by simply returning “home”, wherever that might be. The system wasn’t perfect as birds occasionally got lost or taken by hawks, or in their roles in WWI, shot.
According to the Smithsonian: “Cher Ami” was a registered Black Check Cock carrier pigeon, one of 600 birds owned and flown by the U.S. Army Signal Corps in France during World War I.
He delivered 12 important messages within the American sector at Verdun, France. On his last mission, “Cher Ami,” shot through the breast by enemy fire, managed to return to his loft. A message capsule was found dangling from the ligaments of one of his legs that also had been shattered by enemy fire. The message he carried was from Major Whittlesey’s “Lost Battalion” of the 77th Infantry Division that had been isolated from other American forces. Just a few hours after the message was received, 194 survivors of the battalion were safe behind American lines.
“Cher Ami” was awarded the French “Croix de Guerre” with Palm for his heroic service between the forts of Verdun. He died in 1919 as a result of his battle wounds. “Cher Ami” was later inducted into the Racing Pigeon Hall of Fame in 1931 and received a gold medal from the Organized Bodies of American Racing Pigeon Fanciers in recognition of his extraordinary service during World War I.
“Cher Ami” is on display at the National Museum of American History, Behring Center, in the exhibition The Price of Freedom: Americans At War.”
Carrier pigeons are just a variety of the Rock Pigeon, our city pigeon. The Rock Pigeon has been bred and trained to perform a variety of roles. There are homing pigeons that fly around and return to their roost, even if they were transported elsewhere. This homing ability also allows them to be used in the sport of pigeon racing. A neighbor of mine who races pigeons takes a small flock to a site with other pigeon racers and releases the birds. When the birds reach their home roost, an electronic band on their leg is recorded and the information sent to the site of release. All the pigeon owners then compare data to see whose pigeons were fastest. Although pigeons are good at navigating, they aren’t perfect because my neighbor tells me that up to 40% of the pigeons don’t make it home.
There are around 200 breeds of pigeons, known for their behavior, plumage, or some other characteristic – rollers, tumblers, and, believe it or not, hundreds of others. See Wikipedia for a list.
The Passenger Pigeon was a different species, native to North America, and although enormously abundant at one time, went extinct in 1918, largely due to overhunting. According to Wikipedia “Passenger pigeons were hunted by Native Americans, but hunting intensified after the arrival of Europeans, especially in the 19th century. Pigeon meat was commercialized as cheap food, resulting in hunting on a massive and industrial scale for many decades. Simultaneously, deforestation was practiced on a large scale, which led to habitat loss. These factors, combined with the fact that the species needed vast numbers to sustain itself, led to the extinction of the passenger pigeon. A slow decline between about 1800 and 1870 was followed by a rapid decline between 1870 and 1890. The last confirmed wild bird is thought to have been shot in 1900. The last captive birds were divided in three groups around the turn of the 20th century, some of which were photographed alive. Martha, thought to be the last passenger pigeon, died on September 1, 1914, at the Cincinnati Zoo. The eradication of this species has been described as one of the greatest and most senseless extinctions induced by humans.”