Did you know that pigeons have been used to carry messages for thousands of years? About 2,800 years ago, Greeks used pigeons to deliver news of the winners from Olympic Games. They were also used to deliver messages for the military from some of the earliest recorded battles in history through World War II. Today people enjoy racing pigeons as a hobby.
Pigeons can fly very fast and very far. They can fly 80 kilometers (50 miles) an hour and in two days they can cover 1,600 kilometers (994 miles) to reach their loft (home). Scientists think pigeons use many methods to find their lofts. Pigeons use the position of the sun, familiar landmarks, and Earth's magnetic field. Pigeons also have wonderful eyesight. Their eyesight is better than humans, and they can see ultraviolet light.
During World War I, communication between commanders and those on the frontline was absolutely vital. But with the absence of radio, the only options were field phones or carrier pigeons. If soldiers were in rocky, mountainous areas, it was too difficult to run the wires for a field phone. Thatís where the birds came in.
When troops left for battle, they took with them several carrier pigeons. When they needed to send important messages, they selected a pigeon and placed the message inside a capsule permanently attached to the birdís leg. The birds were hurled high into the air and would immediately begin to fly to their home coop. Once safely behind the lines, a bell, activated by a wire in the pigeon coop, would sound. Another soldier would collect the message and send it on, usually by telegraph.
Enemies made delivering important messages very difficult for the birds. It was a very dangerous job. Most died from bullet wounds. A pigeon called Cher Ami (French for My Dear Friend) had its leg partially severed by enemy fire and still managed to deliver its message, resulting in the release of hundreds of surrounded American soldiers.
Cher Ami received several awards and for a long time was regarded as a national hero.
"Cher Ami." Smithsonian Institution. Jan. 2005 <http://www.si.edu/resource/faq/nmah/cherami.htm>.
"Cher Ami." Jan. 2005 <http://www.homeofheroes.com/wings/part1/3b_cherami.html>.
Feldman, Ruth Tenzer. A Lofty Goal. Odyssey; September 2003, Vol. 12 Issue 6, p 49.
Copyrighted clip art images of pigeons from "Microsoft Office Online" <http://office.microsoft.com/clipart/default.aspx?lc=en-us&cag=1> (October-March, 2004-2005). Clip art only available to licensed users for non-commercial purposes.