Pigeons as messengers, from spying to stocks?!

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This week we're thrilled to have guest blogger Courtney Humphries posting with us. Courtney is the author of Superdove: How the Pigeon Took Manhattan...And the World and today she's riffing on why the U.S. military has awarded pigeons medals, the strange role they've played in financial journalism, and what they've got to do with Noah's Ark. We'll let her take it from here:

Pigeons in a Time of War

pigeonssoldiers.jpgWe don't think of pigeons as being particularly useful in recent history. Sure, they were invaluable as messengers to the Greeks and Romans in ancient times. Pigeons, after all, could outpace messengers on foot or horseback, particularly over rough terrain. And in wartime, they could convey messages from distant outposts to a central command, or to send a message into a city under siege, as they did during the siege of Paris at the tail end of the Franco-Prussian War in 1870.
But what's really surprising is the role they've played in America's history, and the fact that the invention of telecommunications didn't put pigeon messengers out of business. The birds still proved incredibly useful in war, since telegraph wires get cut and phone lines can be tapped. When World War I broke out in Europe, pigeons were well established as a means of reconnaissance in France, Belgium, and Germany. Eventually, pigeons became official members of militaries and honored as such, even receiving medals for their service. Britain and the U.S. both expanded their pigeon operations in World War II: at its peak, the U.S. Pigeon Corps had three-thousand enlisted men, one-hundred fifty officers, and fifty-four-thousand pigeons.

Pigeons for Peace (and Business!)

The birds have proved useful in peacetime as well. Pigeon posts were used to carry mail in the Middle East as early as the 5th century BCE. In the 1800s, Paul Julius Reuters, the founder of the famous wire service, flew pigeons bearing news and stock prices between Brussels, Belgium and Aachen, Germany, where there was a gap in telegraph communications, besting the railroad's time by two hours. The competition for pigeons that could fly financial news led breeders to develop faster breeds. Eventually these culminated in the modern Homing Pigeon, a breed that is flown in races all over the world.

Although these birds are often portrayed as scouts, soldiers, or athletes, from a pigeon's perspective it is only doing one thing: trying to get home. Pigeons have a natural ability to find their homes, which humans have exploited for their own purposes. Homing pigeons are trained from a young age to fly back to their lofts for food even if they are taken far away; some birds have been known to return even after being away for years. Perhaps that's what's most impressive about pigeon communication systems; they rely on messengers who can only travel in one direction.

Of course, the birds often dubbed "rats with wings" do have one other messenger tale that can't be overlooked. One of the first examples of the pigeon as messenger is in the Biblical story of Noah's Ark, in which the dove (or pigeon—the two names were actually interchangeable) returned to Noah bearing a branch that signaled it had found land.

superdove.pngWant more stories about pigeons? Click here to purchase Courtney's wonderful book Superdove: How the Pigeon Took Manhattan...And the World. And be sure to check out Thursday's post on Eating Pigeons by the Forkful.

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February 13, 2009 - 5:46am
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