Homing pigeons launched from sailing ships, may have first come into more common use by Egyptian and Greek navigators. The avian messengers were used to announce a vessel’s approach; they frequently arrived up to 3 days before the ship made port. During the 1300s, the Venetians used carrier pigeons in their battle with the Turks. They were also used by Holland during their battles with the invading Spanish army. But as a military instrument, they were first most extensively used during the 1870-71 German siege of Paris (Franco-Prussian War). During the incident, some 150,000 communications were carried by the birds. Reduced to microscopic photographic prints on 1 3/4 inches long by 1 1/4 in wide silk paper, the pigeons could carry multiple prints that reportedly contained up to 3,500 messages. On arrival at their destination, the dispatches were “enlarged photographically and then deciphered.” Both the military and trapped civilians made use of the bird messengers.
During the late 1870s, France went on to establish a Naval Messenger Pigeon Service at the coastal ports of Toulon, Brest, Nantes and Marseilles. Every man-of-war or torpedo boat sailing out of the harbors were provided with “pigeons-voyageurs.” As part of their training, the pigeons were released offshore, beginning at a distance of 5 miles from port. The distance was gradually increased to 300 miles; most of the birds made it back to their shoreline shelters. During their training, they were also acclimated to the smoke and loud noises of artillery practice. At about the same time, the Italian military began to experiment with their pigeons in “there and back” flights. They considered it crucial for getting messages back and forth to their ships and land bases.
In 1893, the U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis began trials for a Naval Carrier Pigeon Service. A few years earlier, officers and professors at the Academy had pooled their own money to get Navy homing pigeon experiments under way. But finally, appropriations were forthcoming; a loft was finally built for fifty-five birds on the top of the institution’s boat house. Twenty-seven of the pigeons were taken aboard the practice ship Constellation and released at various points from 12 to 150 miles offshore. The trials were deemed highly satisfactory. Of the twenty-seven, twenty-five homing pigeons made it back to their cote (shelter). During that summer, a pigeon was launched from the U.S. ship Monongahela, some 100 miles off Cape Henry, or 250 miles from its home loft. It arrived, flying at an estimated speed of 21 miles per hour. Plans were later made by the Navy Department to set up 22 pigeon cotes, along the Atlantic, Gulf and Pacific coastlines. Each of the planned shelters had a trap door that closed after the pigeon entered. Most also had an electric circuit that rang, alerting the attendant of the bird’s arrival.
Following the Navy’s example, coastal and transatlantic steamships initiated their own messenger pigeon service. Newspapers also used them; they were used to transmit information from news sources. In 1896, homing pigeons played a role in carrying results of that year’s Presidential election.
During World War 1, a homing pigeon may have been key in capturing a German U-boat. An isolated coast watcher spotted the submarine rising to the surface and going to anchor a distance offshore. Though he didn’t know it, the sub had apparently run out of fuel. Attaching a note to the bird’s leg, the lookout dispatched his messenger. A responding British warship took the vessel under tow with its officers and crew. They were then taken to a Naval base.
Homing pigeons were also crucial in rescues. After being torpedoed by a U-boat, a British patrol boat’s skipper, clinging to wreckage, released the messenger pigeon with their position. As it took flight, the sub’s crew opened fire on the bird. It was hit, but despite its wounds, the bloodied bird landed on a British destroyer, some 20 miles away from the wreck. Within 45 minutes, the survivors had been picked up by the destroyer.
When a British seaplane made a forced landing offshore, the crew dispatched their rescue bird. The released pigeon headed into strong, unrelenting head winds. As it crossed the beach, it was overcome by exertion. Found lying near death on the beach sand, just a few miles from its home loft, a coast watcher picked up the bird bearing its message. It was then delivered and a rescue boat was able to rendezvous with the crew.
Prior to World War II, the Navy announced in 1929 that carrier pigeons in the service, had “given way to radio.” With the exception of the Naval Air Station at Lakehurst, NJ and the one on Guam, all other stations were discontinued. They would continue however, serving the Nation’s army through the Second World War.
During the two World Wars, some homing pigeons were cited as war heroes. On October 2, 1918 (WW1), American troops of the 77th Division had advanced too far in the Argonne Forest, trapping them behind German lines. Surrounded by much greater forces, the 550 American troops also found themselves out of radio range. Their only back-up means of communications was their small covey of carrier pigeons. The 77th held its positions but on October 4, they accidently came under artillery fire from their own forces. Their commander, Major Whittlesey, ordered the release of messenger pigeons, but as each one was sent aloft, it was shot down in withering German ground fire. Against such odds, the Major sent off the last pigeon. Within seemingly seconds, the bird was knocked to the ground. Though wounded, the avian messenger managed to take to the air once more and flew some 25 miles to its destination. It had arrived despite the loss of one eye and its right leg dangling from its body. The hero bird, later named Cher Ami, delivered the message and saved men of the “Lost Battalion.” For its heroism, Cher Ami received the French Croix de Guerre, one of that nation’s greatest military honors. The hero bird died about one year later.
On Guadalcanal during World War II a carrier pigeon called Blackie was dispatched to “headquarters with a message detailing the position of some 300 Japanese troops.” Flying just above the battlegrounds, the bird was hit by shrapnel, sending it crashing to the ground. But the wounded messenger was able to take flight again despite wounds in its neck and chest. Medics tended to his wounds while the important information was passed on the commander. Nursed back to health, Blackie was awarded a medal by Major General Alexander Patch and spent his remaining years breeding with others of its kind.
In 1943, an American pigeon, later called GI Joe, was honoured for its service in Italy with the British Dickin Medal of Gallantry. It had helped to save the lives of men in the British 56th Infantry Brigade. During the entire war, some 54,000 American carrier pigeons served with the armed forces; 96 percent of them reached their destination.
Racing homing pigeons have been clocked flying at an average speed of 92.5 mph, in a 400-mile race. But, how do the pigeons find their way home? Their uncanny ability to navigate was once thought to be visual, odor, the sun’s azimuthal position or by detecting magnetic fields. But there is no consensus on how they determine their flight direction. In 2013, Jonathan Hagstrum published an article in the Journal of Experimental Biology reporting that the birds may follow ultralow frequency sounds back to their shelter. The jury is still out.
The famous World War I hero homing pigeon, Cher Ami, was stuffed and is on display at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History.