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The Intrepid Pigeoneers

Article #283 • Written by Alan Bellows

In October 1918, World War I was gradually drawing to a close in the Argonne Forest in northeastern France. Inch by inch, more than one million Allied fighting men slowly wrestled Europe from the occupying Germans, with considerable casualties occurring on both sides. Losses were particularly heavy amongst a battalion of Americans which had pressed too far into enemy territory, leaving 550 soldiers surrounded, outnumbered, and cut off from communications. For days the men valiantly deflected enemy attacks amidst a hail of friendly artillery, but rapidly dwindling forces and supplies soon led to a desperate situation.

Left with no alternative, a member of the US Army Signal Corps named Cher Ami was given the dangerous task of darting past the enemy forces with a message for the Allied commanders. The hastily scribbled note politely requested that headquarters increase the supply of men while decreasing the supply of red-hot shrapnel. As Cher Ami dashed from the forest, enemy gunfire left him with a gunshot wound to the chest and a badly mangled leg, but nonetheless he managed to traverse the twenty-five miles to the command post to deliver his message. As a result, the misplaced battalion was finally rescued.

Cher Ami was awarded France's Croix de Guerre medal for his heroism, but due to his wounds he did not long survive. When he passed away several weeks months later, his remains were placed in a crate and sent to the Smithsonian Institute in Washington DC, where he was stuffed, mounted, and put on display. Cher Ami, the American war hero, was a homing pigeon.

Though their methods are rather mysterious, homing pigeons such as Cher Ami possess a remarkable ability to relocate their home roost from afar, even across hundreds of miles of unfamiliar territory. For centuries humanity has capitalized on this trait by keeping such pigeons at key locations, then sending a fistful of the feathery messengers along with anyone who might need to send back important information.

Today homing pigeons are mostly the stuff of hobbyists, but until the 1950s they comprised a significant portion of the world's communication networks. More than 3,000 years ago the ancient Egyptians and Persians took note of pigeons' tendency to fly back home after being moved, and enterprising pigeon fanciers began cultivating the trait.

A portable pigeon roost from WW1
A portable pigeon roost from WW1

To ensure that only the most skilled homing pigeons were among the breeding stock, the birds were placed in covered baskets and transported to increasingly distant locations; those which returned home had the opportunity to mate, whereas those who lost their way were left to their own devices. Within a few dozen generations, the selectively bred birds had developed uncanny homing abilities, and they were soon pressed into service to relay messages regarding wartime victories and defeats.

Message-carrying homing pigeons remained in service throughout the world for the following three millennia, ferrying information over land and sea at speeds of 30-60 miles per hour. In the 1800s a man named Paul Reuter-- later of Reuters Press Agency fame-- employed a fleet of pigeons to shuttle stock prices between Belgium and Germany. These plucky birds also provided the world's first regular air-mail service well before airplanes were invented, linking Auckland, New Zealand with the Great Barrier Island fifty miles away.

During the "War to End All Wars," homing pigeons were often used alongside radio and telegraph communications. They were valuable as a redundant messaging channel, and prized for their ability to avoid interception and operate during radio silence. Around the same time, a German named Dr Julius Neubronner tinkered with aerial reconnaissance by fitting the birds with small, mechanically-timed panoramic cameras, but results were regrettably inadequate.

In the Second War to End All Wars, homing pigeons were once again drafted into service, this time by a shadowy arm of British intelligence known as Source Columba. Beginning in 1940, the organization airdropped hundreds of crates into occupied France and Holland under the cover of nightfall. Within each crate locals would find a spy kit consisting of 1) a small slip of lightweight paper, 2) a special pencil, 3) detailed instructions, and 4) a single homing pigeon. The instructions encouraged citizen-spies to anonymously jot down any useful tidbits regarding German activities, then stuff the report into the message capsule tied to the pigeon's leg. Many of the pigeons returned to Britain carrying intelligence which proved immensely valuable in the war effort. In one instance, an enthusiastic informer squeezed thousands of words and fourteen hand-drawn maps onto the tiny message sheet, presumably with the aid of an industrial-strength magnifying glass.

Aerial reconnaissance pigeon
Aerial reconnaissance pigeon

Britain's Confidential Pigeon Service became such a rich vein of information that it was kept a closely guarded secret for years, but the Axis powers eventually became savvy to the scheme. As part of a clever countermeasure campaign, Nazis dropped their own doppelganger pigeon-crates over France, each designed to appear British. Along with the pigeon these contained a pack of English cigarettes and a request for the names of local resistance leaders, to ensure that the patriots could be "rewarded" for their heroism. Word of the stoolpigeons quickly spread, however, and French forces were advised to "smoke the cigarettes and eat the pigeons."

In spite of over thirty centuries of close contact with humans, the homing pigeons' methods are still somewhat mysterious. Biologists have antagonized the birds with countless discombobulating devices, but results have frequently been nebulous. Some have speculated that the pigeons possess extremely sensitive semicircular canals in their inner ear, allowing them to efficiently track the twists and turns of a journey to maintain a constant fix on their home. Tests using rapidly-spinning transport containers, however, seem to refute this theory. Other researchers have suggested that landmarks and/or the position of the sun are used for orientation, but experiments with blinders and fogged pigeon-goggles found that most subjects reached the general proximity of their homes despite severely limited vision. This outcome suggests that visual cues are necessary to find the exact roost location, while some other mechanism guides the bird during the longer segment of the journey. Other exercises included the modification of odors, low-frequency sounds, and lighting conditions in an area, resulting in varying degrees of disruption. Given that no single experiment entirely stripped the homing pigeons of their gifts, it is likely that the birds use a concerted assortment of sensitivities.

A man-made three-axis magnetometer
A man-made three-axis magnetometer

Some of the most intriguing experiments have involved the introduction of strong magnetic fields around pigeons' home lofts. These fields triggered significant navigational interference with many of the birds, thereby supporting a long-held hypothesis that pigeons possess some sort of natural magnetic compass. The theory was further reinforced by the observation that homing pigeons sometimes become disoriented during the magnetic storms caused by heavy sunspot activity.

In early 2007, a group of German researchers discovered some microscopic structures which may be the mechanism behind these natural compasses: a collection of tiny maghemite and magnetite particles embedded within the nerves of homing pigeons' beaks. These oblong crystals demonstrated an extreme sensitivity to magnetic fields, appearing to work together to form a three-axis magnetometer. Though biologists are still struggling to grasp the specifics of this mechanism, it seems likely that it allows homing pigeons to sense the relative strength and direction of magnetic north at all times, and thus ascertain their position anywhere on the planet. Considering that most bird species possess an affinity for aerial orientation, many researchers speculate that these natural compasses are a universal avian trait, and that homing pigeons are merely the electromagnetic bloodhounds of the bird world.

Further studies are revealing a plethora of potential uses for these pigeons' microscopic magnetometers, most notably in areas such as nanotechnology, data storage, and global positioning in general. It is doubtful that a modern misplaced battalion would consider such quaint natural alternatives over man-made GPS receivers and encrypted radios, but these feathery remnants of bygone wars may yet teach us a few things about the technology of global navigation.

Article written by Alan Bellows, published on 18 July 2007. Alan is the founder/designer/head writer/managing editor of Damn Interesting.

Article design and artwork by Alan Bellows.
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53 Comments
Geewhizthatsswell
Posted 18 July 2007 at 09:40 am

I love the picture of the Aerial reconnaissance pigeon! Keep up the great articles!


shailu
Posted 18 July 2007 at 10:31 am

Great Article!!


MarshyMarsh
Posted 18 July 2007 at 10:48 am

DI, has an article been done about the pigeons used in the first homing missile?


dkandpal
Posted 18 July 2007 at 10:59 am

DI!


Radiatidon
Posted 18 July 2007 at 11:40 am

What I find interesting is how they home in on my windscreen. Either by dloping it with liberal gloppids of white goo, or suicide runs on country roads leaving tail-tell evidence of their passing in bloody feathers and bulls-eyed spidery-webbed safety glass.


Misfit
Posted 18 July 2007 at 11:43 am

I attend the Art Institute of Chicago, I had to hand-catch three pigeons, and house them in my dorm for two days for a video final (admittedly, I brought it on myself with the story I wrote for the video to go from). It took three days to catch three pigeons. After a while, they actually caught on to the fact that I was trying to catch them (picture hundreds of pigeons huddled on building ledges and El tracks, just WATCHING me throw handfuls of birdseed everywhere). It was totally worth it, my group got great critiques on the video, but let me tell you all, it left me with no desire to ever deal with pigeons on that level again. I have great respect for their abilities and everything, from general research as well as awesome articles like this one, but I shudder at the thought of going through that again. It's... just not for me.


Thag
Posted 18 July 2007 at 12:02 pm

Trivia tidbit: GPS originally stood for Global Pigeoning System...


kip
Posted 18 July 2007 at 12:08 pm

I wonder if anyone's considered dropping such boxes in Afghanistan and Pakistan, requesting information about Osama bin Laden? I'm sure there are some people there who'd like to get rid of him almost as much as us, but would never come forward with information for fear of getting killed. This is about as anonymous as it gets, but probably not the thing modern military would consider. Also, they might have to deal with PETA, which could be worse than the Taliban. ;-)


buttered_toast
Posted 18 July 2007 at 12:11 pm

pidgons sure are sexy little critters


planetjk
Posted 18 July 2007 at 12:15 pm

Sorry Alan, but you neglected to mention two key technological advances heralded by the pigeon: 1) RFC 1149, A Standard for the Transmission of IP Datagrams on Avian Carriers , and 2) Google's PigeonRank(TM)].

:)


Radiatidon
Posted 18 July 2007 at 12:17 pm

These dinosaur miscreants are indeed an interesting offering of the avian line. I have a neighbor who raises and races his own coop of Columba livia. He takes them all over the country, trading with other pigeon enthusiasts, and then releases the traded birds at his home at an appointed time. They then time the birds to see how long it takes them to return home. He says that a pigeon can fly between 40 to 50 miles an hour and travel around 600 miles in a day. Of course that is a racing bird, otherwise the marathon runner of the avian world.

An intriguing bird, has far better eyesight than you or I (they can see UV light also) but very limited in the taste department. The average human has around 9,000 taste buds while the lofty pigeon sports only 37. Guess that explains why they will eat basically anything. Another interesting fact is that a pigeon “sips” water through their beak as you would a straw, rather than dip the bill and toss the head back to swallow like other birds.

Pigeons are not natural to the Americas, there were brought to Canada from Europe during the 1600s. Many of those escaped (or became lost) and created the wild breeds on the American continent.

As for Cher Ami, French for “Dear Friend”, the Lost Battalion he saved was New York’s 77th Division of the US Army. Cher Ami was the third pigeon sent out. The first pigeon was shot down with its message, “Many wounded. We cannot evacuate.” The second was shot down with its message, “Men are suffering. Can support be sent?” Finally Cher Ami was sent, their final pigeon, with his message “Our artillery is dropping a barrage on us. For heaven’s sake, stop it!” The men watched as Cher Ami flew into the sky only to see him shot down as the prior two. Heartsick the men started to wonder if they would see their love ones again, when a shout went out, “He’s up again!”

Excited, the men cheered and prayed for that small avian. Fear froze in their veins when a bullet took the bird’s leg. He fluttered and spiraled momentarily towards the earth, then with renewed determination, regained his flight. The rest, well, as written above, and Cher Ami along with 40 other pigeons were honored after the war for their service and sacrifice.


EinsteinsBrain
Posted 18 July 2007 at 01:12 pm

Word has it bin Laden is using these birds for communication.


Nicki the Heinous
Posted 18 July 2007 at 03:10 pm

This is cool. So gonna grab a random pigeon and try it.


Tink
Posted 18 July 2007 at 05:33 pm

From: http://www.damninteresting.com/?p=403

Comment #23 (November 12th, 2006 at 11:30 pm)
Daniel Lew said: "I left that out on purpose, as well as some other interesting bits of animal warfare, the reason being that dolphins searching for mines seems a little different from WWII animal bombers. If I gather enough interesting stories about other animals used in war, I'll write it up."

Tink said:

Bon Amie was a famous pigeon, she was wounded and yet managed to carry messages across enemy lines, and saved a group of trapped soldiers. It is a story from many years ago, maybe WW1 ;)

Well, how nice to see a story about this famous bird! I got the name wrong (mixed up with that bathroom cleanser featured in Mommy Dearest, LOL) ; But do remember learning about him in a history class @ 1962. Thank you DI! once again for increasing the knowledge of some of our littlest unsung hero's.

Oh and I love the fact that you found a way use the word discombobulated again, dear Alan. Classic!

Is Daniel Lew still one of our DI! writers?


Streetbob80
Posted 18 July 2007 at 06:06 pm

Sure beats the hell out of writing a message, putting it in a bottle, and chunking it into the pacific!


thermopile
Posted 18 July 2007 at 07:04 pm

@planetjk,

There is a revised RFC for IP over Avian Carriers ... it's RFC 2549, IP over Avian Carriers with Quality of Service. Although one quality of service line mentioned (Concorde) no longer exists, it may provide for a shorter latency over long distances.

Those RFC's are hilarious. Good article, too.


justapeon
Posted 18 July 2007 at 09:49 pm

So how long do these pigeons have to stay in one spot before they decide it is home? During that time of the war with the front moving (previous 4 years pretty much stalemate) were the birds homes moved too?


uthor
Posted 18 July 2007 at 10:56 pm

In the Second War to End All Wars

I see what you did there...


Lisette
Posted 18 July 2007 at 11:00 pm

Yeah! But Pigeons are for Muggles Harry Potter and friends use Owls... hahaha


Dublin
Posted 19 July 2007 at 04:17 am

kip said: "I wonder if anyone's considered dropping such boxes in Afghanistan and Pakistan, requesting information about Osama bin Laden? I'm sure there are some people there who'd like to get rid of him almost as much as us, but would never come forward with information for fear of getting killed. This is about as anonymous as it gets, but probably not the thing modern military would consider. Also, they might have to deal with PETA, which could be worse than the Taliban. ;-)"

You would apprehend more War Criminals dropping such boxes in Washington DC!


DW
Posted 19 July 2007 at 05:49 am

DI as usual. Reminds me of a plan to use bats to attack Japanese cities during WW2. (I realise they're not birds, using wings as the thread here!) An inventive dentist whose name escapes me had the ear of the president's wife, and persuaded the authorities of the merits of attaching incendiary bombs to bats, then releasing them over Japanese cities. The bats would seek roosts in the wooden rafters, and at a pre determined time burst into flames taking the building with them. Unfortunately at a demonstration on an American base someone attached real bombs with predicatable results.


Jeffrey93
Posted 19 July 2007 at 06:49 am

Is this mini-compass one of those things that the majority of animals have (including humans) but seemingly only pigeons use to it's full potential? I mean, dogs and cats have been known to find their way home after being lost during family outings in strange places.

I've noticed this with some people as well, myself included. I've fallen asleep on trips, when I awake I have been able to get my bearings by simply turning around 360º and getting the "feeling" of which direction is which. Of course, this isn't during daytime hours or times when the sun would be an indicator of direction.
Is it just luck? Or do many animals possess this trait and just don't know it or use it effectively?


Radiatidon
Posted 19 July 2007 at 06:59 am

B.F. Skinner, a behaviorist, came up with another use for pigeons during WWII. He taught pigeons to recognize a target. Then using a special lens arrangement that displayed the target on screen, the pigeons would guide the bomb to the target by pecking at the screen. This in turn moved the tail fins adjusting the bomb’s glide path. Using three pigeons in separate chambers created a redundant, self-correcting system. The military cancelled the project because it was too radical.

Funny they would think this since during the same period, the OSS came upon the bright idea of using cats for guided bombs. Someone in OSS (read military intelligence) figured that cats possess two very powerful instincts (1) The uncanny ability to almost always land on their feet, and (2) A great dislike of getting their fur wet (read bath). It was reasoned that if you attached a cat to a bomb, and drop it over a sea vessel, well cats soooo hate water that they would guide the bomb to land on the nice, dry, deck of the ship rather than that icky, old, wet, water.

I’m not sure of the mechanism the animal would use to guide the bomb, but the project was scrapped since the Egyptian revered little fuzzy-wuzzys passed out mid-drop and failed to recover to guide the bomb to target.

Of course the US Navy also used Killer Dolphins during the Vietnam War. These highly trained animals had a Needle equipped CO2 container attached to their nose. They were then released into patrolled area where if they discovered any swimmers/divers they would use the needle to inject them. Once injected the compressed CO2 would expand inside the poor fool killing then and floating them to the surface. This practice bagged 40 Viet Cong frogman and two Americans. Guess that skinny-dippin’ hole had them thar “No Tresspassn, Restricted area” signs for a reason.

Oh and to the previous poster on the Fire Bats. It happened during a live test and some of the critters escaped the testing grounds. They torched a general’s car and a hanger. This was considered a success but need more fine-tuning. The project was passed around the various services but finally dropped for lack of funding.


lostindustrial
Posted 19 July 2007 at 07:10 am

I thought homing Pigeons were extinct?


Radiatidon
Posted 19 July 2007 at 07:24 am

Jeffrey93 said: "Is this mini-compass one of those things that the majority of animals have (including humans) but seemingly only pigeons use to it's full potential? I mean, dogs and cats have been known to find their way home after being lost during family outings in strange places.


Is it just luck? Or do many animals possess this trait and just don't know it or use it effectively?"

People do have this ability to “sense” direction. Think of all the people that lived before we had GPS, detailed road maps, and compasses. They were able to travel vast distances and arrive at their destination without much more than the sun, stars, and our inherent ability to navigate by sense.

Two abilities I use, that seem to amaze people, is the ability to pick a wakeup time and wake without the aid of an alarm clock. Tell time (accurate to within 30 minutes) any time of the day. Wander about a forest or jungle and still find camp without the aid of sun, stars, or compass.

If I get confused about the direction, all I do is close my eyes, relax, and think of where camp or South is. Camp will be a feeling that pulls my entire being in a certain direction, South is like, well this one is harder to explain but more of a pull or tickle in my brain. People have tested me on the direction by comparing with a compass.

One time a friend thought he had me since the compass indicated I was off about 15 degrees. We discovered later that we had been in a magnetic anomality and I was actually closer than the compass had been.

These abilities are inherent in all of us. Yet, like a muscle, if you don’t exercise it the ability is weak and undefined.


Radiatidon
Posted 19 July 2007 at 07:25 am

lostindustrial said: "I thought homing Pigeons were extinct?"

Passenger pigeons are extinct. Homing pigeons, or Rock Doves, exist in droves all across the globe.


Floj
Posted 19 July 2007 at 10:09 am

A magnetic sense of direction eh? Intresting coincidence that Tesla had an obsesion with pigeons in is older years...

That's really interesting Radiation, although I guess it would make sense that we would have an ability to sense direction. Like you said, GPS wasn't always there for us. I like to think I have a pie sense, but ofcourse anyone can smell a fresh baked homemade pie cooling on counter... mmmhmm, now I really miss home *sniff*


Radiatidon
Posted 19 July 2007 at 11:34 am

Aw, but that is another very little know and highly guarded secret without the scientific community. In us all is an unnatural substrate incorrectly attached to the misnomer the Piezonerindicator. This unnaturally occurring, artificially created by piefilnits, is the scourge of pie enthusiast everywhere.

Once infected by the forceful consumption of pasty incased piefil, unwitting individuals have an overbearing desire to perforce these abominations of the natural order of consumables into their gullet. This also creates a distortion of the normal eating apparatus commonly referred to as the mouth into the grossly distorted Pie hole. This facial feature, once infected is used mainly for verbal inconsistencies and self-indulgence of randomly scattered pies evilly positioned on windowsills and bakery shelves everywhere.

Woe to those innocently infected with this malady. For from that day forward they desire nothing more than experimenting with these foul pastries. My use of the word foul could be read as fowl as in 7 blackbirds baked in a pie… see what I mean! All thoughts randomly flow to pie and possible pie filling. Though cow pie… ew, someone really should explain the pure physics of proper pie construction and fill to the bovine.

Ah sorry, I digress into a morass of mindful uncertainty. My blood sugar must be low, now where’s the nearest pie…


boredwithfour
Posted 19 July 2007 at 12:03 pm

Great article.


Thag
Posted 19 July 2007 at 12:16 pm

Beak mounted microscopic magnetometers eh? [/p]

So now I am wondering, if I can generate a sufficiently strong magnetic field around my home, will the ones that are constantly crapping on my eaves fly away for dinner never to return?


Emmy
Posted 19 July 2007 at 01:03 pm

I wish I could have a homing pigeon

"Daddy! I want one NOW!!!" XD


Nicki the Heinous
Posted 19 July 2007 at 01:49 pm

Radiatidon said: "Aw, but that is another very little know and highly guarded secret without the scientific community. In us all is an unnatural substrate incorrectly attached to the misnomer the Piezonerindicator. This unnaturally occurring, artificially created by piefilnits, is the scourge of pie enthusiast everywhere.


Once infected by the forceful consumption of pasty incased piefil, unwitting individuals have an overbearing desire to perforce these abominations of the natural order of consumables into their gullet. This also creates a distortion of the normal eating apparatus commonly referred to as the mouth into the grossly distorted Pie hole. This facial feature, once infected is used mainly for verbal inconsistencies and self-indulgence of randomly scattered pies evilly positioned on windowsills and bakery shelves everywhere.

Woe to those innocently infected with this malady. For from that day forward they desire nothing more than experimenting with these foul pastries. My use of the word foul could be read as fowl as in 7 blackbirds baked in a pie… see what I mean! All thoughts randomly flow to pie and possible pie filling. Though cow pie… ew, someone really should explain the pure physics of proper pie construction and fill to the bovine.

Ah sorry, I digress into a morass of mindful uncertainty. My blood sugar must be low, now where’s the nearest pie…"

I suffer as you do my dear.


tednugentkicksass
Posted 19 July 2007 at 10:53 pm

It seems to me that Cher Ami was the only French national to do anything but crumble (let alone succeed) in any 20th century military act.

Jeffrey93 said: "Is this mini-compass one of those things that the majority of animals have (including humans) but seemingly only pigeons use to it's full potential? I mean, dogs and cats have been known to find their way home after being lost during family outings in strange places."

Don't salmon return to their spawning grounds every year? Even if the route there is changed in some way? It seems to me that that would require some amazing sense of direction. The animal kingdom is capable of some amazing acts.

On a totally unrelated, pie-related note: has anybody seen "Kid's in the Hall: Brain Candy"? It's hilarious and Bruce sings a song with the refrain, "Happiness Pie."


nona
Posted 20 July 2007 at 04:48 am


Funny they would think this since during the same period, the OSS came upon the bright idea of using cats for guided bombs. Someone in OSS (read military intelligence) figured that cats possess two very powerful instincts (1) The uncanny ability to almost always land on their feet, and (2) A great dislike of getting their fur wet (read bath). It was reasoned that if you attached a cat to a bomb, and drop it over a sea vessel, well cats soooo hate water that they would guide the bomb to land on the nice, dry, deck of the ship rather than that icky, old, wet, water.

I’m not sure of the mechanism the animal would use to guide the bomb, but the project was scrapped since the Egyptian revered little fuzzy-wuzzys passed out mid-drop and failed to recover to guide the bomb to target.

MI6 once used cats - or tried to use cats - as a bugging device. It was for use in Russia, the idea being that Russians would check for bugs, but no-one would be suspicious of a cat sitting listening to a conversation. (It would seem suspicious to me...) They found a suitable cat, spent months training it to sit still at a certain cafe table, spent a fortune on tiny listening devices to attach to it's collar. Finally it's big day came. The British spies parked near the cafe and let their cat/secret agent out of the car. It slinked across the road to it's destination, ready to do it's duty for Queen and Country and listen to the Russians greatest secrets - and promptly got run over.


Radiatidon
Posted 20 July 2007 at 06:04 am

nona said: "MI6 once used cats - or tried to use cats - as a bugging device. It was for use in Russia, the idea being that Russians would check for bugs, but no-one would be suspicious of a cat sitting listening to a conversation. (It would seem suspicious to me…) They found a suitable cat, spent months training it to sit still at a certain cafe table, spent a fortune on tiny listening devices to attach to it's collar. Finally it's big day came. The British spies parked near the cafe and let their cat/secret agent out of the car. It slinked across the road to it's destination, ready to do it's duty for Queen and Country and listen to the Russians greatest secrets - and promptly got run over."

Nona, the name for that was called "Operation Acoustic Kitty", and it was the CIA. Follow this link for more http://www.damninteresting.com/?p=636


Radiatidon
Posted 20 July 2007 at 06:41 am

tednugentkicksass said: "It seems to me that Cher Ami was the only French national to do anything but crumble (let alone succeed) in any 20th century military act. "

Actually Cher Ami was British. He was donated to the war effort by a British pigeon hobbyist. American Pigeoneers trained him, and upon completing training, was assigned to the 77th Infantry Division for service from 1917 until 1918. The group was under the Command of Major Whittlesey, a prominent New York Lawyer who had joined to help defeat the Hun.

Of the 500 men who had followed Major Whittlesey into the Argonne forest that day, only 194 followed him out. Interestingly, when Cher Ami arrived at the coop, the leg that had been shot off was embedded into his chest where the first bullet had struck him. The same leg that the message was attached to.

Though the barrage of friendly fire ceased, it took another 5 days before the lost battalion could march out of enemy territory. During that time two airmen, Lieutenants Harold Goettler and Erwin Bleckley lost their lives trying to airdrop supplies to the besieged fighters.

Meanwhile, American medics did succeed in saving Cher Ami’s life, if not his leg and one eye. The 77th dolled over the little bird, even going so far as to carve a wooden leg to replace the one he had lost. General John J. Pershing personally saw this avian off personally when Cher Ami departed France for America.

This little bird became one of America’s biggest heroes, but he died less than a year later on June 13, 1919. One of the most inspirational tags that became associated with Cher Ami, “Never give up!”


Q
Posted 20 July 2007 at 09:41 am

I recall reading about those flaming bats and more in Natural Acts when I was younger.


just_dave
Posted 20 July 2007 at 12:20 pm

There's an animated movie called Valiant, about a pigeon in Great Britain's Royal Air Force Homing Pigeon Service during World War II. The bad guys are portrayed by hawks in Nazi uniforms. Ewan McGregor does the voice for Valiant, the lead character. Not a bad movie, especially from a kid's point of view. My kids had tons of questions about how pigeons were used during the World Wars, so it turned into a decent educational experience for all of us.


CanInternet
Posted 20 July 2007 at 02:53 pm

Nice article. I was with my wife in Normandy 2 years ago (my inlaws have a house there). And while we were doing an excursion and were on Omaha beach I picked up a spent 12 gauge cartdrige. So Edward our guide (Irish decent from catholic mother and protestant father... imagine his childhood overthere) asked what I picked up. So that was a nice moment to tell him sonething new. Something forgotten. All german squads allways had one member who was a good hunting shooter. It was his job to down any pigeon who was flying "the wrong way". I knew this of my parents who grew up during the war (teens then) and that they always made fun of the guy "who wasn´t allowed a real gun and had to make do with a double barrel". But behind "the fun" was something else as I found out later in my newspaper days.
We may hate the beasts when they shit on us, but hell, they did their share.
So the next time you get dropped on, think of it as something as a remembrance to those who fly no more...
*fly-by-of-5-pigeons-and-one-falls-away... *
(absolutly no salutes fired into the air)


tednugentkicksass
Posted 20 July 2007 at 03:08 pm

Radiatidon said: "Actually Cher Ami was British."

That makes sense. Something seemed fishy about a French bird doing what a Frenchman couldn't.


SoxSweepAgain
Posted 20 July 2007 at 07:18 pm

I've finally registered here.

This is one of the finest sites I've ever visited.

Kudos to the authors. I've spent many hours here.


Matthew
Posted 21 July 2007 at 02:23 pm

Though magnetism helps explain this phenomenon, this isn't not the whole story. Scientists, Rupert Sheldrake, has done work with mobile pigeon lofts. He goes into some detail in his books but he also brings up the topic during the Glorious Accident round table discussion. Around the table are: Stephen Jay Gould, Oliver Sacks, Daniel Dennet, Freeman Dyson, Stephen Toulmin, and of course Rupert Sheldrake. You can see the video here.


nona
Posted 21 July 2007 at 02:24 pm

Radiatidon said: "Nona, the name for that was called "Operation Acoustic Kitty", and it was the CIA. Follow this link for more http://www.damninteresting.com/?p=636"

Ididn't know that story was on here, I heard it on QI - thanks for letting me know. Im beginning to think QI steals all its good stuff from this site!


Byrden
Posted 22 July 2007 at 02:19 am

In view of all the experiments done on pigeons, has anyone tried showing them maps? I'd bet that a pigeon is smart enough to read a simple map and navigate by memory of it.


amberleaf
Posted 23 July 2007 at 02:00 am

Pigeon pie

Serves 4-6

Preparation time 30 mins to 1 hour
Cooking time 1 to 2 hours

Ingredients
4-5 pigeons, drawn. 6 if using road kills.
salt and pepper to taste
250g/8oz stewing beef
250g/8oz shortcrust pastry
beaten egg to glaze
2 tsp cornflour
300ml/10fl oz stock

Method
1. Preheat the oven to 180C/350F/Gas 4.
2. Kill Pigeons and wait until flapping subsides.
3. Remove feathers heads and feet if they still have them and
put aside for decoration if later required.
4. Joint the birds into two breast joints and two leg joints
each and stew the rest of the carcass in a little water to
make stock for the gravy.
5. Cut the beef into small pieces and line a deep 20cm/8in pie
dish with these.
6. Lay the pigeon joints on top, cover with water, add salt
and pepper, then cover the pie dish with greased paper or
aluminium foil. Place in the oven and simmer for 1½ hours.
7. Remove from the oven and raise oven temperature to
200C/400F/Gas 6.
8. Cover the pie with the shortcrust pastry, brush the top
with beaten egg, put back into the oven and bake until the
pastry is golden brown.
9. Make a gravy by mixing 10g/2tsp cornflour with a little
cold water and add to 300ml/10fl oz of the warmed stock. Allow
to thicken while stirring, season, add decorations, Serve on a plate.


Ahuva
Posted 23 July 2007 at 02:07 am

Amberleaf, I'd love to see pics of the "decorated" pie. I keep thinking of creative uses for the feet.


ironcross
Posted 23 July 2007 at 04:10 am

Of course we all know this would never take place in the present day. Do you think that pigeon made that choice to go into service and be shot down? Pigeons have feelings too you know and it is those rotten soldiers who got themselves in that predicament who should have been shot, not the pigeon.


riddle
Posted 25 July 2007 at 11:41 am

There was a film titled "The Lost battalion" which closely documents the events of Whittlesy and the men of his battalion. Very cool!


HiEv
Posted 27 July 2007 at 03:53 am

tednugentkicksass said: "It seems to me that Cher Ami was the only French national to do anything but crumble (let alone succeed) in any 20th century military act."

Don't be so bigoted. For your information, the French were instrumental in the ending of WWI, especially in the Second Battle of the Marne, the first of what would become a string of Allied victories that ended the war.

Besides, it's not like the US hasn't had a long series of defeats and questionable results in military efforts since failing to win the Korean War in 1950-53. The Vietnam War - lost, Beirut - withdrew, Gulf War - questionable success (Saddam remained in power; led to Iraq War), Somalia - withdrew, Afghanistan - questionable success (Osama bin Laden still at large; Taliban remains in rural areas; current government is fragile), Iraq War - complete mess. (And if you're going to claim the questionable victories in the Gulf War or Afghanistan, please note that they both had French military support.) As you can see, the US has had a rather miserable track record in military endeavors for over 50 years as well.

And really now, why should a country's ability to attack another country be seen as something to be proud of in the 21st century? Shouldn't the ability to foster and maintain peace be more important than the ability to wage and win wars in the modern world? I think your prejudice against the French is rather misplaced.


tednugentkicksass
Posted 28 July 2007 at 07:27 pm

HiEv said: "Don't be so bigoted. For your information, the French were instrumental in the ending of WWI, especially in the Second Battle of the Marne, the first of what would become a string of Allied victories that ended the war.


Besides, it's not like the US hasn't had a long series of defeats and questionable results in military efforts since failing to win the Korean War in 1950-53. The Vietnam War - lost, Beirut - withdrew, Gulf War - questionable success (Saddam remained in power; led to Iraq War), Somalia - withdrew, Afghanistan - questionable success (Osama bin Laden still at large; Taliban remains in rural areas; current government is fragile), Iraq War - complete mess. (And if you're going to claim the questionable victories in the Gulf War or Afghanistan, please note that they both had French military support.) As you can see, the US has had a rather miserable track record in military endeavors for over 50 years as well.

And really now, why should a country's ability to attack another country be seen as something to be proud of in the 21st century? Shouldn't the ability to foster and maintain peace be more important than the ability to wage and win wars in the modern world? I think your prejudice against the French is rather misplaced."

Dude, chill out. The comment was meant in jest. That's just my sense of humor. I was trying to bait somebody into a stupid argument and now that I have, it's retarded. No country has a perfect track-record when it comes to wars, just some are able to sell their successes a little better than others. I won't apologize for my comment, but I will apologize for being a dumb-ass. I am glad you make such an effort to put forward your own political-correctness.... good for you, you are better than me.


Random5
Posted 29 July 2007 at 11:08 am

It is annoying that all the French are mocked as cowards due to the decisions of one French government. Americans always seem to their performance in WWII something to brag about as well which is rather annoying.


haveacupoftea
Posted 29 July 2007 at 12:22 pm

I know of at least two monuments to commemorate their feats and sacrifice in the WWs, though I'm sure there are a lot more.
In Brussels, North of the Sainte Catherine neighbourhood, there's one to the Pigeon Soldier.
In London, along the East side of Hyde Park, bordering Mayfair, to Animals in War in general.


Meathammer
Posted 29 July 2007 at 10:13 pm

As if it needs to be said (yet again), fantastic job Alan.

...where he was stuffed, mounted, and put on display...

That is how I want to go...that's not like a metaphor for anything, I mean the taxidermy part not the...

Oh nevermind...

...the ancient Egyptians and Persians took note of pigeons' tendency...

A suttle pun, perhaps? As in carrier pigeons? Note? Get it? Maybe not, I think the article about boobs overloaded my Pun Detector.


END OF COMMENTS
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