“You might be speaking German if it wasn’t for pigeons”
Originally published May 22, 2013
This post has been re-edited many times and fresh content related to pigeons was added on 5/22/18 which can be found below.
An addendum was added on 5/14/19 with a brief overview of other animals in the military.
Pigeons have been used to communicate over distances since the time of Julius Caesar.
The Persians (now Iran), and even the Greeks used homing pigeons to “broadcast” news about who won the Olympics.
Homing pigeons were considered highly prestigious way back in 18th century France until the French Revolution which changed things so anybody who wanted one, could have a pigeon.
During the Franco-Prussian war, Parisians used hot air balloons to deploy flocks of homing pigeons out of their city to the countryside and vice versa.
With the advent of microphotography in the 19th century pigeons could carry as many as 30,000 messages by a single bird.
When World War I began armies in Europe used many homing pigeons. General John Pershing saw this and implemented the Army Signal Corps which was the first military form of a pigeon communication system.
The numbers are sketchy but it’s believed more than 500,000 birds were used by the world armies during World War One.
Pigeons were highly respected because they had over a 90% delivery rate which proved to be literally life-saving for soldiers on the front line.
Putting things in perspective, at the time the best shot they had at communicating was the telegraph – which required permanent poles & wires.
Cher Ami was the name of one of the most famous WWI homing pigeons saving an entire French battalion in spite of German soldiers shooting out the bird’s eye, its chest, and a leg.
The bird was able to fly 25 miles in this condition to the command post which stop the shelling and saved countless lives.
Sometimes they didn’t make it…..
But you can see from the object with the bones what the size of the canister was. The paper had to be extremely thin and light as well.
The bird actually healed up, and was given an honorary Service Cross and after his death, it was mounted in place at the Smithsonian Institute.
Without war, the birds weren’t that necessary to the military but homing pigeons were put back in service when WWII began.
The Germans had maintained a large contingent of pigeons, almost 50,000 whereas the US let its pigeon population dwindle and had to reboot the program from scratch.
When entering the military at that time, if you had a poultry or pigeon background you were put to work as a pigeoneer in the military.
In 1941 the veterinary service for Army Signal Pigeons was assigned to Fort Monmouth, New Jersey which became a breeding and training center.
This is where signal pigeons were bred, trained, and deployed under the guidance of the Pigeon Service which was now an arm of the Army Signal Corps.
In 1942 Fort Monmouth changed its name to Camp Alfred Vail and began developing basically the perfect vision for the military.
Later that year the entire operation was moved to Camp Crowder Missouri where it remained until after V-J day when the program moved back to Fort Monmouth.
By mid-WWII, the Army had more than 50,000 birds and began to focus on pigeon health trying to ensure against introducing pigeon-borne diseases which affected the birds and other animals as well as human beings.
Pigeons were given inoculations, diagnostic investigating studies were initiated which all help to establish controls against the diseases of pigeons.
It took about 8 weeks to train a pigeon after hatching.
When the bird was about 4 weeks old it was moved to a mobile loft which was moved daily over the next few weeks three times a day morning, noon, and night.
At eight weeks if the bird could fly for an hour, they would begin to move them farther flying from 50 or more miles out and then even farther until it was determined they were ready for combat.
Once on the front, handlers learned incentives that would make the birds fly faster.
Even though hunger was a good motivator, sex, and jealousy proved even more powerful.
Trainers would introduce a new male to the mate of a male about to leave on a mission.
Birds anyways returned faster if they knew another suitor was milling about back home in the coop.
Human B-17 pilots and crews had to wear oxygen masks and heated suits at 20,000 feet.
Pigeons were fine with just their well, feathers.
As high as 35,000 feet with temperatures 30 below and colder, these durable little creatures would sit with eyes half-closed and fluffed up feathers for warmth.
Initially, the military designed and used special drop boxes.
The thinking was these would prevent the bird’s wings from being ripped off in the slipstream after release.
These drop boxes would open at predetermined altitudes.
Ironically it was soon learned they could let birds out at very high altitudes at speeds approaching 400 MPH using a paper grocery bag.
The handler would slit the side and place the bird in head first then neatly fold the bag around the bird. Once dropped into the slipstream the bag would unfurl allowing the bird to spread his wings and then spiral down to “cruising altitude”.
More than 300,000 pigeons were used overseas although the veterinary practice was not implemented uniformly in all the war zones because of the newness of the concept of military vet veterinary medicine for the Army pigeon service.
To introduce military veterinary medicine into the Army pigeon service human trainees were given more than 25 hours of instruction on that very subject during their eight-week training program.
One of the big problems was that the manuals they were learning from were woefully out of date.
As an example, although a pigeon’s pox vaccine had been developed more than a decade earlier it was never mentioned in the curriculum.
Neither was salmonellosis (aka pigeon paratyphoid) which was the most devastating disease of signal pigeons during World War II.
Salmonellosis, a bacterial infection, caused a form of lameness named “wing droop”.
It was the single leading cause of pigeon death during the war.
And spite of investigation of this disease by both the Army and civilian labs no vaccine was ever developed thus the army relied heavily on coop sanitation and the quarantine of sick birds.
Housing too many pigeons in one area was obviously a big problem too.
A standard mobile pigeon coop would arrive in a war theater but be immediately remodeled based on climatic conditions.
It was important to have coops exposed to sunlight, be dry and draft-free, and above all, they needed to be clean.
The Surgeon General’s office provided Information as early as 1922 listing supplies, pharmaceuticals, and disinfectants that could then be used by pigeon service personnel to keep pigeon coops clean and parasite free.
At the time the Army suggested sodium fluoride for the control of pigeon lice.
One of the companies in France built some open aviaries to provide additional room but encountered seasonal rains and 2500 of its 3500 pigeons got sick.
The illness was a problem across all the theaters where veterinary losses were almost equal to in-flight losses.
Veterinary losses were reduced by not introducing replacement pigeons and encouraging breeding.
Veterinary and quarantine coops were introduced to help reduce this phenomenon.
In spite of the fact that the Signal Paging Company was authorized as its own organic service unit, no veterinary reports on individual pigeons were ever maintained.
Feeding that many birds were also a big problem.
Large quantities of feed packed in burlap bags acquired from various zones of the interior by the Signal Corps often came deteriorated or were unusable by the time it arrived in the various overseas theaters.
The bags were torn up or rodent-infested and became damp, moldy, or vermin-infested from being at sea for so long.
As much as they tried the Army veterinary service was unable to remove the damaged grains without causing an imbalance in the overall nutritional value of the feeds.
This problem was addressed by fumigating the seed and then packing it into hermetically sealed tin containers towards the end of the war.
The 281st Signal Pigeon Company at Fort George G Meade Maryland was successful in administering vitamins after realizing the birds had certain vitamin deficiencies from eating the regular pigeon feed.
They were then authorized to acquire 45,000 multivitamin capsules for each pigeon company.
It wasn’t until 1942 the Army finally authorized an organic veterinary detachment for all the pigeon units deployed overseas.
Each unit of a veterinary Corps had an officer who was either first Lieut. or Capt. and then one enlisted technician.
A company unit was divided into three combat platoons each with 1500 pigeons.
By organizing the birds in this way the Army was able to determine the necessary medicines and medical instruments to maintain every unit.
Although radios were brought into service at this time pigeons were still used when radio silence was necessary.
Even after the war ended pigeons were used to cross the English Channel between England and France.
The counter moves by both countries created falconry programs.
The problem was the Falcons could never differentiate the nationality of the carrier pigeons.
As a caveat to this article, you’ll find it amazing how far pigeons have come into the mainstream as illustrated by the purchase of a racing pigeon named Bolt that sold for $400,000.
We added additional content about pigeons on 05/22/18.
We hope you find it as much fun and interesting as we did.
BF Skinner was engaged by the U.S. Army to build a “guided by pigeon” bomb system.
Pigeons were placed into the nose cone of a bomb having three windows for anywhere from 1 to 3 pigeons to look through.
A metal tab was attached to the pigeon’s beak that tapped a metal plate. Where the pigeon tapped was the missile control system causing a change in course.
The pigeons were trained to peck at a target. They were conditioned to keep the target centered in front of the missile.
The National Defense Research Committee kicked in $25,000 for research but alas nobody in the Army took BF seriously.
Despite the pigeons having a very high accuracy rate given the fact that they can process visual information three times faster than you and I, the project was canceled in October 1944.
In 1948 the Navy deployed Project Orcon (Organic control) but after five years once again project pigeon was canceled.
Skinner held on to all the pigeons just to find out how long they would remember how to guide missiles.
Turns out that after six years they didn’t miss a step.
Why do people keep pigeons in their backyard in a shed? Why do they even like pigeons?
The bigger question is why don’t the pigeons fly away? Most likely it’s because they are homing pigeons.
If the pigeons have various colors they are probably racing pigeons which means they can be taken great distances.
They have special bands on their legs.
When they arrive back at their home coop they cross over an electronic sensor that tells a special remote timekeeping system, the arrival time which then determines how long it took the bird to fly home.
Thus they only fly back they never fly forth.
If the birds are all white or there are coops with all-white birds they are probably being rented out in place of doves.
When you have a ceremony and would like to have a “dove” release, it would be inhumane to use doves as the birds would be frightened and crash into trees and light poles, and houses.
It would not be pretty.
Conversely, there are companies that rent “white pigeons” who are trained flyers.
Once the birds are released at the event, the birds methodically fly straight home.
It’s a win-win for everybody.
I’ve written extensively about the fact that if it wasn’t for homing pigeons we might be all speaking German.
Although homing pigeons were used during World War One they were also used during World War Two.
During the great war, the pigeon population in the military climbed to more than half 1 million birds.
By the way, pigeons are doves and vice versa – kinda – actually there are more than 300 species of pigeons and doves
What do you call a 4 door pigeon coop?
A pigeon sedan.
Pigeons are still used to carry blood samples from remote regions of Britain and France.
Pigeons are still used to carry blood samples from remote regions of Britain and France, and in the United States, they are able to spot shipwrecks from helicopters because of their 360-degree vision.
They are raced (500,000 pigeons cross France each weekend when the weather is good), collected (King Faisal of Saudi Arabia is said to have 150,000), and are subjected to all the vicissitudes of modern life.
In eastern India, for example, officials stopped using about 400 carrier pigeons that had served as a link between remote police stations since 1946 because of competition from the Internet and e-mail.
And drug traffickers continue to escape technological advances and surveillance by sending flocks of pigeons, each carrying ten grams of heroin, between Afghanistan and Pakistan.
We’ve established that pigeons were used to communicate in written and photographic form so I started thinking about what other animals have served in the military?
Horses, elephants, and camels to name a few, were utilized for mounted attacks as well as transportation.
Even rats and pigs have found their way into certain functions of the military.
Squealing pigs were used to scare elephants who would then trample slumbering soldiers.
Dead rats were filled with plastic explosives and left in the corners of factories.
They were shoveled up by maintenance who then dispose of the dead animal in a furnace now filled with whatever predated C4-creating furnace/boiler bombs.
Giant pouched rats such as the Gambian giant pouched rat have been successful with mine detection using their keen sense of smell to find explosives.
Because they are small they rarely trigger a landmine.
The ancient Greeks used dogs (the Molossian dog breed) for warfare as well as the Roman Empire.
Molossian dogs were used against elephants because they scared the giant animals into a panic which brought down many soldiers who were in the elephant’s way.
(Just like the pigs)
Dogs have been relied on heavily for many purposes now focusing on bomb detection and as guards.
Dogs wore spiked metal collars and mail armor and then arranged attack formations during the Roman Empire.
Great Danes were employed by England in the Middle Ages to scare horses and throw off their riders or knock knights off their horses.
This many times disabled the knight until their master provided the final kill.
Even dolphins and sea lions are used today for underwater bomb detection.
Because the biological sonar of dolphins, called echolocation makes them superior at hunting down see mines.
Sea lions can market retrieve objects in the ocean for the Navy.
Check out the Navy Marine Mammal Program (NMMP).
By far horses have been the most used animal in the history of warfare.
Photo released on November 12, 2001, claiming to show “the first American cavalry charge of the 21st century” in league with Northern Alliance forces in the Battle of Mazar-i-Sharif.
They could pull chariots.
Horses allowed for the first horse-mounted cavalry.
The steeds were also employed to help install communication wires.
While not used widely by the United States military today, horses are used by armies throughout the world to help navigate difficult terrain.
A dog employed by the Sanitary Corps during World War I to locate wounded soldiers. It is fitted with a gas mask.
Elephants were employed to move heavy loads like armaments for Hannibal during the Second Punic War.
Camels have been employed as mounts (Camel cavalries) because they can better navigate deserts and horses and are sustainable with a lot less water than horses.
Mules were used in World War II to help move equipment over rough terrain going places where jeeps and even pack horses could not.
Oxen have been known to carry artillery through heavy terrain.
At the beginning of the Southern Song Dynasty, monkeys were clothed with straw, dipped in a vat of oil, and then set on fire.
The flaming monkeys were released into an enemy’s camp which quickly set many tents on fire and created absolute pandemonium.
Bats are used to carry small incendiary devices in a US-based strategy for Mexico.
The CIA actually tried to modify cats surgically for spying in Soviet embassies in the Kremlin back in the 60s.
Cats will be cats and in spite of spending over $10 million, the Acoustic Kitty project was abandoned.
Egyptians did not harm cats because of their religious beliefs so the Achaemenid forces used cats and other animals as a psychological tactic.
Felines had greater efficacy in controlling rats and mice on ships.
During the Gulf War the Kuwaiti Field Chicken (KFC) operation we used to detect poisonous gases.
Consider this a very short list of animals in the military.