We’re all familiar with birds as messengers. The Owl Post depicted by J.K Rowling, or of Ravens in Game of Thrones are two examples that come to mind.
Maybe pigeons don’t have the same kind of romance as them–dirty creatures, coming in flocks, befouling our cities, and carrying diseases–but the real life use of pigeons as messengers grants a little bit more nobility to the humble urban pests.
With an estimated flight speed of 50 mph, carrier pigeons make pretty efficient messengers. In an age of instant communication, it might be hard to appreciate how impressive this is. For a quick comparison: a horse at full gallop is lucky to sustain 40 mph for long.
The use of pigeons for communication dates back millennia, from use in Ancient Greece to communicate the results of the Olympic Games, to use by Genghis Khan, Napoleon, and the Crusaders to communicate from battlefields.
One of the basic limitations of carrier pigeons is that it is a strictly one-way communication. Homing Pigeons, were selectively bred to do just that, find their way home over long distances. Carried on ships setting out to sea, or with soldiers heading to battle, pigeons could be released with a message, and fairly reliably make their way to wherever they were taken from.
Even alongside radio technologies, pigeons had an important role to play for communications in wartime, when these methods were sometimes interrupted.
During the siege of Paris during the Franco-Prussian War, telegraph and post were interrupted. Pigeon post became the alternative. Floating the pigeons by unmanned balloon outside the city limits, the birds were collected by allies, who could attach them with messages to be flown into Paris. If this sounds like an unreliable communication plan - it’s because it was. In addition to being found by the enemy, many pigeons were brought down by bad weather, or by hawks. Messages had to be sent out multiple times to have a good chance of reaching their recipients.
Interestingly, the Parisian pigeon post saw one of the earliest uses of micro-film. Printed minutely, recipients projected messages by magic lantern. This made it possible for a much larger amount of data to be carried by each bird, allowing the inclusion of personal messages among official communications.
Fifty years later, during the World Wars, pigeons remained useful. In battle, radios and wireless could fail or might be intercepted by the enemy.
Expertly trained pigeons that flew high and fast enough to be unaffected by gas clouds and fire were comparatively reliable. Once released, a pigeon could reach headquarters in about 15 minutes.
Caged, dropped in fields, and equipped with instructions and questionnaires (for whoever found them), pigeons were also used during WWII to communicate with civilians in occupied Holland, Belgium, and France.
These humble pests, with a noble history, brought messages that could easily tip the scales of a battle, and even the war. To echo the words of one official, “In times of emergency: radio can be easily jammed, but trained birds get through nine times out of ten.”