I’ve never really paid much attention to pigeons before a conversation with a friend that got me very curious, so I went a‘lookin’ … and was pleasantly surprised at what I found.
Pigeons generally raise two chicks at a time, and are incubated by both parents for about 18 days; also being fed from a special pigeon milk secretion from the lining of the crop of both parents. The chicks, called squabs are fully fledged at about 30 days, and can breed at about 6 months. They have a varied diet from seeds to food waste, and have the ability to drink by using their beaks like straws whereas other birds will sip water, then throw their head back to swallow it.
They have excellent hearing, being able to detect sounds at lower frequencies than humans can, therefore being able to hear storms, earthquakes and volcanoes long before us. (I can see I’m going to view a flock of pigeons taking to the air suddenly with a lot more suspicion in future.)
They are able to recognise themselves in a mirror; one of only six species able to do this with the pigeon being the only non-mammal. They are also able to recognise letters in the alphabet, and even distinguish between different people in a photograph. Famous behavioural psychologist, BF Skinner taught pigeons how to play a form of ping-pong, using their beaks to tap the ball from one side of a specially designed table to the other. Check it out at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vGazyH6fQQ4
Famous pigeon lovers include Queen Elizabeth, Elvis Presley and Walt Disney. They come from all walks of life such as actor Yul Brynner, scientist Charles Darwin, electrical pioneer Nikola Tesla, fashion designer Maurizo Gucci, and even a stripper named Gypsy Rose Lee. Pablo Picasso loved the birds so much that he named his daughter Paloma, Spanish for pigeon.
In bygone centuries, pigeon poop was considered a better fertilizer than that of other animals, to the point that many dovecotes would be guarded to prevent the theft of it. It was also the only known source of saltpetre at the time, an essential ingredient of gunpowder.
People often confuse pigeons and doves since they both fall into the family Columbidae with many similar characteristics, and with specialised breeding, it can get very confusing. White doves are not the best fliers and don’t fend for themselves very well at all so they are more suitable for magic acts in a controlled environment. They are easy to handle and conceal, but not suitable for homing and racing activities. The feral pigeons that we see all over the cities are twice their size, have no significant homing instinct and tend to stay within a small area, generally within about 10 kilometres of their home. Homing pigeons are much larger and stronger than feral pigeons, able to fly great distances, and do have the homing ability. With this in mind, perhaps the term “pigeon of peace” is more appropriate since a dove would more than likely not have brought Noah his olive branch, and it is unlikely that white doves being released at ceremonies would find their way home again.
Racing pigeons can fly at altitudes of about 6000 feet (1.8 kms), and at an average speed of 80 kilometres per hour with their fastest speeds over shorter distances reaching 140 km/hr which is 20 kms faster than the maximum speed limit on any South African Road. This speed is determined by the distance flown divided by the time taken to fly it. The traditional method of timing a bird was to attach a serial number to the bird which was then removed and placed into a sealed clock. The flaw in this system was that the owner would have to wait for the bird’s arrival and then catch it to remove the tag which apparently isn’t always easy. A more modern method is the use of radio frequency identification chips which record the bird’s arrival at the loft, with no more waiting for and chasing of birds.
Throughout history, homers have been used to carry messages when other means of communication were not available. Originally they were used at the Olympic Games by competitors who used them to send news home, eventually simply being released as part of the ceremonies. Pigeons were used between the Great Barrier Island and Auckland in New Zealand to carry up to 5 messages a time; the first airmail stamps being issued for this Great barrier Pigeon-Gram service.
A chemist in Germany named Julius Neubronner used carrier pigeons to deliver urgent medications on their back, and in England, Devonport Hospital used pigeons to fly unbreakable specimen vials to Plymouth General Hospital, keeping 30 birds for the task.
Their most famous role was during the two world wars in the early part of last century when they were used to replace radio communication or when it failed. Birds would often be carried in small coops on planes and ships to report on enemy movements and also in the event of a plane crashing or ship sinking to mark their position; often leading to the crew being saved.
While watching a Great British Menu qualifier, one of the chefs cooked a pigeon for the feast in honour of those who fought in the wars. During a conversation with the guest judge that day, a lady who’d served in the war, they were talking about other food sources in a time of such scarcity, such as the bird life available. She was asked if they ate much pigeon, to which she replied that one did not shoot pigeons during the war, just in case it was carrying an urgent message. (That really hit home for me.)
While many pigeons never returned home, their determination to get there if they were injured or covered in oil, etc certainly seems noteworthy. One of the best cases of this is a bird named Cher Ami which translates as “Dear Friend”, who had been donated to the US Army Signal Corps. In October 1918, men from the 77th infantry had become trapped with no food or ammunition, and were also being bombarded by friendly fire. The commander sent two birds who were both shot down immediately. The third message saying, “We are along road parallel to 276:4. Own artillery is dropping a barrage directly on us. For Heaven’s sake, stop it!” was then attached to their last bird, Cher Ami who was also shot immediately and fell to the ground … but who then managed to get back into the air, flying home successfully over 25 miles despite the breast injury, being blinded in one eye, covered in blood and with one leg hanging on by only a tendon. The barrage stopped as soon as the message was retrieved, saving the lives of 194 men. Cher Ami was attended to by medics, eventually having his leg replaced with a wooden one but ultimately succumbing to the wounds received in battle. He was awarded the Croix de Guerre with palm – a French military decoration for French and allied soldiers who were cited for their service; the palm signifying a higher level of importance of their action.
In 1943, Maria Dickin, the founder of the People’s Dispensary for Sick Animals (PDSA), a British veterinary charity, instituted the PDSA Dickin Medal, awarded for conspicuous gallantry or devotion to duty while serving in a military conflict – but this award is just for animals. It is a bronze medallion with the wording “For Gallantry” and “We Also Serve” engraved in the centre of a laurel wreath, and attached to a striped ribbon of pale blue, dark brown and green. Between 1943 and 1949, the medal was awarded 54 times, 32 times to pigeons.
Of all the information I discovered, I think the most amusing has to be that homing pigeons have beaten the internet, not just once, but four times! The first time, in 2009, was when a Durban-based IT company raced their 11 month old pet pigeon named Winston, carrying a loaded 4 gigabyte memory stick, against a Telkom ADSL line over a distance of about 60 kms, from Howick to Hilton. Winston took 2 hours, 6 minutes and 57 seconds to deliver the data at which time the transfer over the ADSL line was only 4% complete.
Later that same year, the Australians pitted a pigeon against a car and a Telstra ADSL line to see which was the fastest over a distance of 132 kms by road. The bird arrived in 1 hour 5 minutes, the car came in second at 2 hours 10 minutes, and the ADSL connection dropped off twice, never actually delivering the data.
The third race was over 120 kms, with the bird racing a YouTube upload over a British Telecom broadband; the bird arriving in 90 minutes while the upload never completed.
The fourth race was also in Britain, in 2010, with several pigeons racing several uploads of a video to YouTube over a rural broadband connection. The birds arrived in 1 hour 15 minutes when only a quarter of the video had been uploaded.
I now have a far greater respect for these amazing little creatures. Here’s wishing you pigeon-speed in all your internet connections 😉