The Decorated History of Pigeons

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On May 24th, villagers on the Indian side of the long-disputed India-Pakistan Border reported to authorities that a lone pigeon that had flown into a local woman’s home, and that it might be a cross-border spy.

Geeta Devi, who lives in the Manyari region of Indian-administered Kashmir, raised the alarm when, after capturing the feather intruder, noticed that its wings were branded with bright patches of pink paint, and that one of its legs was fitted with a number-coded ring tag. The suspicious numerals were cause for concern for local officials, who then handed over the suspect to the Border Security Force for investigation.

Given the volatile nature of the region where Ms Devi found the bird, it is unsurprising that residents would be vigilant. A spate of similar incidents have set border-dwelling villagers on high alert for birds on reconnaissance missions. In 2013, a dead falcon fitted with a small primitive camera and antenna, was found in the northwestern Rajasthan state. In 2016, a pigeon crossed the border near Punjab carrying a cautionary note written in Urdu to India’s Prime Minister, claiming that ‘each and every child [was] ready to fight against India’. Neither case was confirmed as attempted Pakistani espionage.

Pigeons have a long, decorated history of being used in warfare. More intelligent than balloons — which have also been used to deliver threatening messages to India in the past — and less conspicuous than drones, birds are the ideal messenger. To bypass today’s more advanced interception technologies like electronic tapping, deploying the unremarkable yet highly reliable pigeon seems like a no-brainer.

Homing, or messenger, pigeons, are a domestic breed with a well-honed ability to retrace their flight-paths across extraordinarily long distances. Years of selective breeding have diluted the ancient homing instinct of the messenger’s ancestor, the showy Carrier, a favorite of Charles Darwin prized for its sinuous neck, yet modern-day homers are still used today, mostly for racing.

Pigeons have been emissaries and servants to human civilization since 3000 BC. At the conclusion of the 776 BC Olympic Games, the names of the victorious athletes were conveyed to Athens via messenger pigeon. Julius Caesar is indebted to pigeons for carrying important messages that aided his conquest of Gaul, as is Genghis Khan, whose pigeon relay network spanned all of Asian continent, reaching as far as Eastern Europe. It was millionaire Nathan Rothschild’s private pigeon that delivered the news of Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo, some twenty-four hours before the rest of London heard. Yet the domestic homing pigeon’s military heyday came some time later during World Wars I and II when they became indispensable tools of warfare.

War pigeons, as they became known, are notably remembered for their role in the First World War. Communication technologies like the telephone and telegraph, still in relative infancy at the time, were unsophisticated and unreliable. To improve their communications, Europe’s wartime leaders deployed a force of homing pigeons to deliver essential messages between battle fronts.

In August 1917, Pigeon №498 became a British war hero of sorts when it summoned help for survivors of a confrontation in the North Sea. After a German U-Boat blasted a hole in his ship, a mortally wounded Skipper Thomas Crisp released four pigeons carrying SOS messages from his foundering ship. The survivors of the sunken vessel were found days later after one of the birds successfully delivered its fateful message.

From ‘Dreadnought’ of the Royal Engineers Signal Service, to ‘Cher Ami’, the heroic female columbine and recipient of the Croix de Guerre Medal who saved 194 men despite being shot through the breast and losing a leg, the pigeons of World War I were forces to be reckoned with.

Pigeons were not just wartime couriers. Towards the conclusion of World War II, members of the UK’s Pigeon Policy Committee (yes, there was such an organisation!) proposed training the birds as precision missiles. Instead of homing to a predestined loft to deliver a message to allies, the birds would be re-deployed to deposit capsules of explosives or bio-weapons (such as toxic bacteria) onto unsuspecting enemy targets.

Project Pigeon, using psychologist BF Skinner’s behaviorist principles, set out to design a pigeon-controlled missile that would leverage the bird’s naturally precise maneuverability, intelligence and ability to stay cool in a melee. In short, Skinner’s team wanted to upgrade postal pigeons to kamikaze pilots. Placed in a cockpit (no pun intended) with a porthole, the birds would be trained using operant conditioning to recognize a target projected onto a tiny screen, and to peck continuously at the target, thereby re-calibrating the missile’s course if it veered off-target. Thankfully, the idea of using a weaponized avian in warfare was never put into practice.

The proposed use of birds as incendiary weapons appears in one other instance in history, some centuries before Skinner’s pigeon-piloted missile, when, in 1267, the Sheriff of Essex Richard de Southchurch, set off to plunder supplies for the besieged king’s army. While gathering up stores of wheat, oats, eggs, bacon and linen for bandaging, the Sheriff seized forty live cockerels, which he declared he would set loose on London with fire tied to their legs to burn the city to the ground. Like Project Pigeon, however, the idea was abandoned. Who knows how Richard’s forty incendiary cocks might have otherwise changed the course of London’s history?

Before you begin to despair over humanity’s historically callous use of birds in warfare and espionage, meet Brigadier Sir Nils Olav, colonel-in-chief of the Norwegian King’s Guard, knight, and unofficial mascot for the royal battalion. He is also a king penguin.

Nils Olav comes from an illustrious line of Norwegian king penguin mascots, the first of which was presented to the Edinburgh Zoo in 1913 by Norway’s polar explorer, Roald Amundsen, who had returned with the souvenir penguin from his pioneering South Pole mission two years earlier. Since 1972, the Zoo has played host to a high-ranking Norwegian king penguin named Nils Olav who has received a military promotion each time his countrymen have visited him at his Scottish home. The present-day Nils Olav’s duties include inspecting King’s Guard troops at the annual Military Tattoo and overseeing his colony at the Zoo’s Penguin Rock, Europe’s largest outdoor penguin pool.

This year’s pigeon fiasco at the India-Pakistan Border ended happily. On May 27th, a Pakistani fisherman and a pigeon fancier who lives 2.5 miles from the border claimed the wayward bird and requested that Indian Prime Minister release it. The man claimed that the mysterious numerical code attached to the bird’s leg was his mobile phone number. In the border region, it is common practice to raise racing pigeons. Owners identify their birds using stamps, rings or brightly colored paint, as was seen in the specimen Geeta Devi found.

India repatriated the bird a few days later, cleared of all charges, to its home country, setting it free from the exact spot where it was captured. Presumably it used its in-built magneto-reception to navigate back to its concerned owner. While the pigeon’s police records will forever brand it a “Pak Suspicious Detective”, the moniker local authorities gave it upon its detainment, it certainly escaped a worse fate. Let’s hope the once-suspected avian spy will use its homing ability to avoid the contentious border in future, because next time, it may meet a similar fate to its wartime ancestors.

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writing person | occupational therapist | never seen a ghost. I write about food, weird histories, human behavior, and our lives under late capitalism

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