Birds have been message-carriers longer than humans have been recording time. Of course, their amazing success in protecting and delivering these messages led to the thought: “How can we use them to help in our petty human conflicts?”
It’s like when you’re watching Braveheart and you see a horse get speared by some Scottish guy trying to get the best of some English guy. What did the horse ever do to deserve it?
In any case, pigeons are particularly successful in long-distance message delivery — with a lot less risk involved than a battle horse. Their earliest known military use was by the Romans more than 2,000 years ago. The United States Army established a pigeon service in 1917.
Here are 15 cool facts about war pigeons:
1. Pigeons were still vital in WWII
War pigeons were standard in the Great War, but the following two decades showed a lot of technological advancement. Even though WWII soldiers had the means to communicate by wire and radio, they still used pigeons to deliver vital messages. Why?
- Radio messages had the potential to be intercepted behind enemy lines
- In emergency situations, radio comm could be disabled or otherwise not possible
- Difficult terrain made certain posts unsuitable for wire or radio communication
- For fast deliverance of cross-continental news, pigeons were still the best option
2. The Normandy landings were first reported by a pigeon
Gustav the pigeon brought the first word of the Normandy landings to the British. He was a grizzle-colored cock pigeon in the RAF, known by his service number NPS.42.31066. He was trained by pigeon handler Fred Jackson and given to the National Pigeon Service for use in the war.
For his valorous delivery of the Normandy news, Gustav was awarded the Dickin Medal, also known as the animals’ Victoria Cross. 32 war pigeons were given this medal in WWII.
3. Naturally, they all had kick-ass names
Even though each pigeon was designated by their service number, many of them were also given names. A handful include: Lady Astor, Holy Ghost, Pepperhead, and Commando.
What would you name your pigeon?
4. They had an astounding 90% delivery success rate
Of the 54,000 carrier pigeons that the Army used in WWII, they got the message delivered 90% of the time. In fact, the Army didn’t even bother coding their messages because they were so reliable. Around 1% of pigeon-carried messages were coded.
5. Pigeons were paratroopers, too
Sometimes dropped in special containers with their own parachutes, and sometimes strapped to the chests of Army paratroopers, war pigeons were especially useful in airborne operations.
The main reason for airborne missions was to quickly and efficiently drop behind enemy lines, which made achieving the objective that much easier. Pigeons were also quick and dependable; if everything went wrong and all else failed, at least word of the failure and potentially useful information could be returned home.
The birds were fastened to soldiers’ chests by a special vest that could be moved to their backs once they landed. It looked a lot like a sling and was actually made by a bra company. One paratrooper pigeon named Thunderbird made 10 jumps; he received a pair of miniature wings from Ft. Benning after his service.
6. 1941 headlines read: “Cheer Up, Men, Birds Also May Be Drafted”
News stories like this spread across the nation and raised morale among troops. The Army was buying civilian-trained pigeons for $5 a pop, and also taking them on loan or donation. Additionally, they were recruiting special soldiers as pigeon masters to handle the birds.
After they’d built up a solid base of carrier pigeons, the Army started their own breeding program for the strongest birds possible.
7. WWII pigeons could fly triple the distance of WWI birds
The Army’s breeding program was successful in that its birds were much more fit for combat. The average pigeon in World War I could fly only 200 miles at a time; the average World War II pigeon could easily manage 400, and sometimes 600 miles.
They also flew faster. They could reach up to 60 miles an hour, though they averaged 35 to 40 on longer flights. What’s more – on these long flights it was typical for a pigeon to lose one-fifth of its body weight. This is why the Army used younger, more fit birds, around one to four years old.
Fun fact: pigeons can live up to 15 years! They are smart and generally healthy birds with only one known predator, the coastal peregrine falcon. In urban populations, however, it is much more common for them to die after 3-5 years.
8. A war pigeon could be deployed at a mere 8 weeks old
The training process is simple, and goes as follows:
- At 4 weeks old, the chick is taken from its nest and placed in a mobile loft
- The loft is moved daily, and the bird is allowed to fly three times a day to regain its bearings
- By week 8 the pigeon can fly for 60 miles, and knows its surroundings perfectly
From there, it is trained to fly farther and faster, and can reliably be used as a messenger.
9. Carrier pigeons’ greatest motivator? Sex
Handlers tried just about everything to make a pigeon’s flight faster. The first trick in the book was to withhold food. A hungry pigeon will fly faster in order to eat. Pretty basic stuff.
However, one fascinating motivator for war pigeons was their mating instincts. Pigeons tend to mate for life – although there are exceptions – and male pigeons especially are jealous little birds.
A handler would spark this jealousy by introducing a new male to the loft right before the mated male left on his flight. In turn, the mated male would perform his task much quicker than before, to ensure that his lady didn’t have time for any funny business.
10. They directly saved pilot lives
This fascinating statistic was released by the RAF during the war: one of every seven crewman who survived a flight failure owed his life to a carrier pigeon. This led to the United States placing war pigeons on pretty much every American bomber.
The really neat things about pigeons on bombers was that they needed no special flight equipment. The average man at 20,000 feet had to wear an oxygen mask and a heated suit to withstand the altitude. Pigeons, however, could function perfectly normal, even at 35,000 feet.
Even though the Army had designed special drop boxes for pigeons, it was discovered that they could be released from planes in thin, paper-like bags and survive just the same. A slit was cut into a bag, the pigeon placed headfirst, and then thrown from high altitudes at 375 miles per hour. The bird would emerge from the bag and fly down to a better altitude before returning home.
11. How do the pigeons always find their way home?
It’s a bit of a mystery to us useless humans how a bird can magically know its way home from almost anywhere on earth. So how do they do it?
Through research using artificial lighting, it was discovered that pigeons do in fact use the sun’s position to direct themselves. On overcast days, however, they are able to tune in to the earth’s electro-magnetic fields for orientation.
“The brain cells signal the direction, intensity, and polarity of the earth’s magnetic field,” says J. David Dickman, a neuroscientist at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston. “These signals could be used like a GPS.”
Scientists still don’t know exactly how their brains are capable of this.
12. Main causes of death were bomb shrapnel and friendly fire
While they were sometimes victims of enemy shootings, carrier birds were often killed by errant bombs or even the very men who sent them.
One pigeon – named Blackie Harrington – was assigned to the Catcher’s Mitt on Guadalcanal. It was called this due to the many bombs that fell there. Blackie was fitted with a message detailing information on 300 Japanese troops, but on his delivery route he was hit by bomb shrapnel, and spiralled into a thicket.
Suffering terrible wounds to his neck and chest, Blackie somehow regained flight and delivered his message successfully. When a soldier tried to give him water, it dribbled from his throat and out of his chest wound. Quick medical attention miraculously saved his life, and he was retired to breed with his mate Madame Murphy.
13. POW pigeons were a thing
Certain German and Japanese troops were issued shotguns just so they could shoot down American birds. Others decided to capture them.
In 1944, Lucia di Lammermoor the pigeon was delayed in flight. When she returned to her post, she carried a new message: “To the American Troops: Herewith we return a pigeon to you. We have enough to eat. —The German Troops.”
14. This celebrated pigeon saved an entire brigade
The situation was dire. An aerial bombing attack had been ordered on Calvi Vecchia, Italy, which was occupied by German troops. However, at the last minute, the German troops retreated and the British 56th Infantry Brigade moved in on the town.
American troops desperately tried to call off the attack, but any radio attempts failed to go through. In a last ditch effort, they sent the carrier pigeon GI Joe.
Joe amazingly covered 20 miles in a mere 20 minutes, reaching the Allied Support Command in the nick of time. As one soldier recalled, five minutes later would have been too late. GI Joe was awarded the Dickin Medal — the only American pigeon to achieve it.
15. War pigeons are overlooked heroes
Much like the many dogs who saved American lives, war pigeons are overlooked veterans who very well could have won the war. We see them in city streets and think of them as trash birds who are dumber than doorknobs, when in fact, their ancestors delivered some of the most important messages in American history.
For more, read about the canine veteran Sgt. Stubby, and what he did to achieve his rank.