Monday, November 12, 2012

Apple #610: Carrier and Homing Pigeons

Today is Veterans' Day.  Since we've all been through a pretty rough-and-tumble election with insults being flung literally left and right, I thought it would be nice to talk about a calmer, more soothing topic.  Like pigeons.  And as it turns out, some pigeons are also veterans.

Pigeons can be veterans too. These are homing pigeons in a mobile pigeon loft in Okinawa in 1945.
(Photo from WWII in Color)

What's prompting this Daily Apple is a news story that ran a couple of weeks ago, about a carrier pigeon.  A man in England decided to restore his home's original fireplace and when he had the wall knocked down, he discovered the skeleton of a bird. On closer inspection, he realized it was a pigeon, and it had a little red canister still attached to its leg. Inside the canister, on a piece of paper as thin as a cigarette rolling paper was a series of handwritten letters that were clearly a message in code.

Remains of the carrier pigeon and the red canister it was carrying still attached to its leg.
(Photo from The History Blog)

Based on the style of the canister and the form of the message and various other indicators, it's believed that this pigeon was sent at some point during World War II.  The band on the pigeon's leg says it was born in 1940.  They think that perhaps the pigeon stopped to rest in Surrey, on this man's chimney, but something went wrong and the pigeon died and fell down the chimney.

The message it was carrying was written by a Sergeant W. Stott and it was addressed to "X02," which was England's Bomber Command.  Several pigeons were released on D-Day, meant to carry messages back to England's home command.  So it's possible that this pigeon was sent on D-Day by some British Royal Air Force (RAF) pilot, perhaps requesting a bombing raid.

The coded message that the carrier pigeon was, well, carrying.
(Photo from The History Blog)

Bletchley Park, which was Britain's intelligence and decoding headquarters during the war and is now a museum, has several messages sent by carrier pigeon, but none of them are in code.  Bletchley Park's modern-day decoding counterpart now has the message and they are trying to crack the code.

I wonder if we'll ever learn what it says, or if it will be judged to be too sensitive, even this many years later.

Now for more facts behind the news story.

  • First, a lot of newspaper articles use the phrase "carrier pigeon" pretty indiscriminately.   Usually when they say "carrier pigeon" it turns out it was really a homing pigeon that was also carrying a message.
  • Carrier pigeons and homing pigeons are both of the same species (Columba livia or Rock pigeons), but they're slightly different breeds.  A true carrier pigeon is pretty ugly.  It has a big warty blob on top of its beak and as the bird ages, the warty blob gets bigger and another one grows on the underside of its beak.  It also has a fleshy ring around its eye that gives it a staring, almost vulture-like expression.

This image is pretty small, but you can kind of make out the warty blob on top of this carrier pigeon's beak and the fleshy ring around its eye. All the larger pictures I found have copyright insignias all over them. But you might not want to see those images up close, anyway.
(Photo from thelongestlistofthelongeststuff etc.)

  • Today, carrier pigeons are bred primarily as show birds for their fancy and strange facial features and their ornamental plumage.
  • Homing pigeons look more like the regular pigeons you see hanging around city streets and telephone wires. These pigeons have slightly more muscular breasts, but the bigger difference is that they have been bred for centuries and also trained so that, no matter how far they fly, they'll always find home.  Which, to them, means finding their most reliable source of food.
  • Homing pigeons also almost always have an identification band on one leg so that in the rare case when they get lost, the person who finds the bird can contact its owner.
  • (Recently, one homing pigeon named Henry got lost on the way from France to England and wound up in the Bahamas. His owner doesn't believe he actually flew across the entire Atlantic but probably hitched a ride on some cruise ship. His owner has agreed that Henry can stay there rather than risk the flight back. So now the Bahamas are now his new home. I say, smart bird.)

Henry the pigeon from Leeds in his new home in the Bahamas.
(Photo from Look at this . . .)

  • I don't know enough about pigeon skeleton anatomy to say for sure whether the skeleton that was found in the man's chimney was a carrier or a homing pigeon, but I have a feeling that it may have been a homing pigeon.
  • The catch with homing pigeons is you can't have them fly off and deliver a message to someone else. They'll just come back home.  You have to take them away from their home base and then release them and they'll fly home.  So, for military intelligence purposes, you have to have a person in the enemy territory who can take the bird into the fray with them and then release it to go back home.
  • During World War II, RAF pilots routinely took pigeons with them on their missions.  (Again, most articles refer to them as carrier pigeons, but I think they were really homing pigeons who were carrying messages.)  If the pilot's plane was shot down and they had no way to communicate their whereabouts, the pigeon would be released to fly back home and "tell" the base where the plane had landed.

A Canadian airman carrying homing pigeons in a box -- WWII's version of the black box.
(Photo from War 44 Forums)

  • This actually happened, and successfully, in one instance. On February 23, 1942, an RAF bomber was pretty much in flames and its crew bailed out into the North Sea.  Yeah, February, in the sea off the coast of Norway, not exactly bathwater.
  • Just before they bailed out, the crew released the pigeon they had on board -- a blue checkered hen named Winkie.  They hoped that Winkie would fly home to her perch in Dundee and thus alert the air base that the plane she'd flown out in had gone down.
  • She flew 120 miles and was discovered "exhausted and covered in oil" by her owner, who then alerted the nearby RAF base.
  • She wasn't carrying any message, but they were able to calculate how far she must have flown, based on their last communications with the plane, and taking into account windspeeds and the fact that her feathers were coated in oil.
  • The rescue mission found the pilot and crew within 15 minutes.
  • A dinner was later given in her honor, and she was awarded the first Dickin Medal, which is an award given to an animal for delivering a message under exceptional difficulties.

This is Winkie, the bird who saved the lives of several men on an RAF bomber in World War II.
(Photo from BBC News)

  • One of the reasons the British had all those carrier/homing pigeons was because they'd heard that the Germans had a regular crew of them.  Carrier/homing pigeons were used fairly extensively on all sides during World War I, but after that war, most armies had let their pigeon crews lapse.  Not Germany.
  • (Actually, armies have been using pigeons to carry messages going all the way back to King Cyrus of Persia.) 

A mobile pigeon roost used by the US Army during World War I.
(Photo from Suite 101)

  • When World War II broke out, the Germans had some 50,000 pigeons trained and ready for use. Well, they commandeered the pigeon lofts of civilians and claimed them for the military's use.
  • In fact, the head of the SS, Heinrich Himmler, was in charge of Germany's National Pigeon Society. Which meant he could use the pigeons for intelligence purposes.
  • The French and the British didn't know about the pigeon corps at first, but they began to suspect something was up in 1942, when they noticed lots of pigeons flying around England toward France.
  • The British suspected -- and their suspicions were confirmed by captured German soldiers -- that the pigeons were dropped off by the German troops either by parachute or by boat along the British coastline.  The pigeons carried messages about troop strength, fortifications, gun positions. Sometimes they even carried maps or photos.

German WWII soldier carrying carrier pigeons.
(Photo from the Daily Gun

  • The British decided to counteract the German pigeon intelligence in two ways. First, they copied the idea and gathered trained pigeons for their own purposes. Second, they also developed and trained a corps of birds of another kind -- peregrine falcons.  
  • The peregrine falcons were trained to go after the pigeons.  In most cases, they probably simply attacked the pigeons, but they actually brought back two of the German pigeons who became, technically speaking, prisoners of war.

And, what do you know, our military is still using pigeons to this day.
(Photo from The Duffel Blog)

  • After the Department of the Army blew its entire communications budget on a $15 billion-with-a-b radio system that essentially didn't work, they had to find other means of communication. The Army Chief of Staff asked his big thinkers to come up with some other low-cost method that couldn't be hacked or interrupted.  They came up with KITDFOHS (Kinetic Internal Directly Functional Operational Homing Science).
  • Translated, that means carrier pigeons, hand and arm signals, smoke signals, and yelling.
  • Here's what one soldier in Afghanistan has to say about this communications program (please excuse the, um, military language):
“Hand and arm signals, OK. Yelling, OK. But fuck, carrier pigeons and smoke signals? Now on patrol one of my guys has to carry a cage on his back with pigeons in it. Another troop is stuck carrying kindling and flint everywhere we go. Have you ever tried to build a fire while taking fire? It ain’t easy.”

He continued, “These pigeons are the nastiest creatures I’ve ever seen. Not to mention anytime we go through a market all the Afghans ask ‘how much, how much?’”

“While it’s pretty tough to have to carry this stuff, it makes for a good punishment technique. Whoever pisses me off is getting pigeon shit all over their gear by the end of the patrol.”

Who'd have thought that a bunch of pigeons could actually be that important?  In fact it's against the law in New Jersey to delay or detain a homing pigeon.
(Photo from NJ Kegstand)

David Wilkes, Skeleton of hero World War II carrier pigeon found in chimney with a secret message still attached to its leg, Daily Mail, November 1, 2012
Raven Idiot, Big Sky Birding Column from the Montana Best Times, part 2, The Complex World of Pigeons
Racing vs carrier homer, Pigeon Talk
World of Wings, Military Pigeons, The Birds That Save Lives
Chris Brooke, Not so bird-brained after all! Racing pigeon that went missing en route to Leeds finally turns up 4,500 miles away in the Bahamas, Daily Mail, July 20, 2012
The pigeon that saved a World War II bomber crew, BBC News, February 23, 2012
Rockville man raises, races carrier pigeons, The Washington Post, July 14, 2011
American in WWII, Pigeons of War
Nazis & Their Pigeons
Army Replaces Defective Radios with Carrier Pigeons, Smoke Signals, The Duffel Blog, October 9, 2012


  1. P.S. In the week before China's elections, they've pretty much shut down or blocked most of the internet. In an effort to control information still further, the Communist Party is "warning people to be on the look out for subversive ideas—not conveyed by e-mail or satellite television or text message, but by ping-pong balls that can be hurled from taxi windows, or strapped to carrier pigeons."

    Read more:

  2. The Duffle Blog is a total spoof, don't you know, like the Onion...
    However, pigeons have saved more humans at one time than any other creature. Look up GI Joe, Willam of Orange, Mary of Exeter. They are also smarter than almost every mammal, only one of five animals that can recognize their own image, the only non-primate. They mate for life, the best of parents. The exterminator industry has spent $ millions telling people they spread diseases [which they don't, unless you eat their poop, but that is another issue] and have made $ billions. Pigeons are a lifetime of study - they un-F my head from the war when I sit in their loft with their gentle cooing.
    I love them!


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