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Fascinating History of Homing Pigeons

Updated on April 28, 2012

Great Barrier Island Pigeon-Gram stamp 1899

It was October of 1918, and things looked bleak for the 77th Infantry Division. They had been pinned down in the Argonne Forest by enemy gunfire for six days and they were virtually out of food, water and ammunition. The unit, commanded by Major Charles Whittlesey, had already lost over 200 men, about half their number. And the American forces hadn’t a clue as to their whereabouts.

Whittlesey’s command, also known as the Liberty Division, had a number of homing pigeons to send messages back to command posts. He released three with urgent messages for immediate help. They never made it through enemy lines. Cher Ami, the only remaining pigeon and unit’s last hope, was released.

Despite heavy enemy fire, Cher Ami succeeded in making it back to headquarters, a distance of about twenty-five miles and help was sent. However, he lost a leg, an eye, and took a bullet through the breastbone. Cher Ami was hailed as a war hero and awarded the French Croix de Guerre with Palm. Though Cher Ami survived for a while he never recovered to full health and he died on June 13, 1919. His preserved body can still be seen at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History.

Homing pigeons were utilized by the military in WW II as well. They played a major role in the Invasion of Normandy as radio silence had to be maintained. In fact, homing pigeons have been providing their valuable service a long time.

The Egyptians and the Persians first used carrier pigeons over 5,000 years ago. Messenger pigeons were used as early as 1150 in Baghdad and later by Genghis Kahn. In1860, Julius Reuter, who later founded Reuter’s press agency, used them to deliver news and stock prices between Brussels and Aachen. Stamps were even issued for the Great Barrier Pigeon-Gram Service from 1898 to 1908. To this day, the symbol for many European postal systems is a racing pigeon.

The homing pigeon is a variety of domestic pigeon derived from the Rock Pigeon. Wild rock pigeons instinctively return to their own nest and mate, which makes them ideal for breeding purposes.

Today, their role as message carriers has been replaced by modern technology. Try as they might, they can’t compete with the speed of an electronic text message. But other ways have been found to employ their talents, such as competition pigeon racing. It became fashionably popular in Belgium during the mid 1800s. So much so, they began breeding pigeons specifically designed for speed and endurance called Voyageurs.

After World War I, many began breeding homing pigeons as a hobby and clubs started forming, mostly in Western Europe. But when the pastime spread to other countries national societies began to be established to standardize breeding techniques and training methods. In 1938, Brussels hosted an international pigeon racing congress highlighting the achievements of various associations. A competition called a Pigeon Olympiad was established there and another followed in 1939. Eventually Olympiads became an event held every two years.

Pigeon racing is the sport of releasing specially trained racing pigeons which then return to their homes over a premeasured distance.The winner is the bird with the highest velocity, meaning, the distance flown divided by the time taken. Some flights as long as 1,100 miles have been recorded by birds with flying speeds averaging 50 mph over distances of up to 500 miles. Top racers have been known to reach 110 mph in shorter distances.

The latest technology for timing racing pigeons is the Electronic Timing System. Birds are fitted with a band, which they must wear to compete. The band has a small electronic chip in it which records the exact time the bird returns to its loft. Often races are won by as little as a 100th of a second. These bands are usually placed on a bird’s leg at about 5 days of age.

To compete, the racing pigeon must be entered into the competition. Then they are taken from their loft to be released at a predetermined time and location. The distance between the bird's home loft and point of release is is carefully tracked by GPS. Sometimes there are 2 divisions…one for younger birds and another for older ones.

Young racing pigeons are usually trained for at least six months before being allowed to compete in a race event. This involves familiarizing it with the loft, its surroundings and commands such as entering the loft when the trainer whistles. And since racing pigeons often fly over great distances they are at risk of being killed by predatory birds of prey, such as the Peregrine Falcon. As a result, it’s suspected a few breeders have taken to killing them.

One-Loft Racing has become a popular method of training racing pigeons. This involves pigeons being bred by many different breeders in the same loft, under the same trainer and same conditions. This eliminates trainer against trainer competition and is thought to be the fairest method of proving which bloodline or breeder is best. Balance, muscle, good wings and buoyancy are all important quality's needed in a racing pigeon.

Although nothing more than theory, eye sign is a topic often discussed among breeders. Some believe certain eye characteristics indicate whether or not a bird will be a good racer, while others dismiss the subject as pure nonsense, having no scientific basis.

There are numerous websites on the internet dedicated to breeding, training and racing pigeons. Here is one which provides excellent information. Who knows, maybe you’ll discover a new hobby.


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    • JamaGenee profile image

      Joanna McKenna 5 years ago from Central Oklahoma

      You are just to funny for words sometimes. lol!

    • JY3502 profile image

      John Young 5 years ago from Florence, South Carolina

      Well Jama, then came the telephone, television and then tell Jama. he he

    • JamaGenee profile image

      Joanna McKenna 5 years ago from Central Oklahoma

      I sometimes wondered what happened to homing pigeons after faster means of communication became common. Now I know. Thanks!

      Voted up and awesome! ;D

    • JY3502 profile image

      John Young 5 years ago from Florence, South Carolina

      Pamela99, I'm glad to see you still following my work. Like all the rest it's just an idea that came to mind.

    • Pamela99 profile image

      Pamela Oglesby 5 years ago from United States

      I really enjoyed reading this article with so much excellent information. I knew the pigeons had been used in war, but I certainly didn't know all the other facts. Up and interesting.

    • JY3502 profile image

      John Young 5 years ago from Florence, South Carolina

      Thank you so much. This one took a lot of research to find just the right facts I was looking for.

    • aviannovice profile image

      Deb Hirt 5 years ago from Stillwater, OK

      Great facts on racing pigeons, as well as those that delivered messages during the wars.