Carrier Pigeon: History | Species Profile | Interesting Facts

You may have heard of Cher Ami – the brave carrier pigeon who carried the news of stranded American soldiers who were in danger. 

Intro Video - Backtobirds
Intro Video - Backtobirds

She delivered this message despite being mortally wounded. Cher Ami reached the base with information with a bullet-sized hole in her chest and her leg hanging by only a few tendons. 

She saved the lives of many soldiers and became a hero. 

I’m sure that such a story would have aroused some curiosity in you about carrier pigeons. Let’s dive in.

What is a Carrier Pigeon? 

Carrier pigeons refer to a type of pigeon which was bred from rock pigeons – a wild breed of pigeon. These pigeons had the uncanny ability to return home after long journeys. 

Carrier pigeons were originally bred to carry messages from one place to another. They are the largest variety of pigeons and were trained to carry letters and any necessary small items. 

Now, carrier pigeons are purely shown birds, while the messages are carried by homing pigeons.

Related Read: Do Pigeons Carry Diseases | Will they spread to humans? Health risks from pigeons: 

Carrier Pigeon History:

Pigeon-Gram Service

Carrier pigeons have a rich history. In 1896, the first airmail service was established in New Zealand which used pigeons to send posts. It was called the Pigeon-Gram Service. 

Each pigeon could carry 5 messages. The interesting part is that these pigeons were very fast flyers. They reached average speeds of 77.6 mph.

Who was the first to use carrier pigeons?

The World Wars

Carrier pigeons had an important role in the First World War. They were used for carrying messages. Countries like Germany went as far as to hire marksmen to shoot these carrier pigeons down so that they could intercept messages and gain intel. 

Pigeons were carried in tanks and boats. If a boat was attacked and sank, a pigeon could be released with the exact location of the boat that was sinking in the ocean. 

Often, the people aboard could be saved due to the messages that these pigeons delivered. 

In World War II, pigeons were used to transfer messages in Europe, Burma, and India. 

Natural disasters

Odisha, in India, was home to the last messaging service that used pigeons. It was discontinued in 2006 after 60 years. Pigeons had carried messages daily between all 400 police stations in the state. 

Pigeons were essential in helping stranded people during the cyclone of 1971 and the floods in 1982. They saved many lives.

Ancient History

If you think that pigeons were used only in the 19th and 20th centuries, you are wrong. 

Pigeons were used as far back as 2000 BC when they carried messages in Mesopotamia when there were wars. 

Julius Caesar also used carrier pigeons when he was conquering Gaul around the 50th century BC. 

Even in the first Olympic Games, pigeons were important. When an athlete won an event, his personal pigeon would take the news back to his home. 

Recognitions and awards

Did you know that pigeons have also received awards for their gallant service during war? The Dickin medal – which recognizes any animal which has performed an act of extreme bravery during the war has been awarded to 32 pigeons. 

This is well-deserved because the messages carried by these pigeons have saved thousands of lives in wars. 

Related Read: How Long Do Pigeons Live?

Strategic planning

Another important role that carrier pigeons have played is that of aerial photography. A small camera was attached to the pigeons and they were sent to areas of strategic importance. 

The pictures that were taken here could help armies plan their strategies and it was also possible to discern movements of enemy troops.

How to identify a carrier pigeon

Since carrier pigeons are bred for their beauty and perfection of form, they have some distinct physical features which set them apart from other pigeons. 

Carrier pigeons have long slender bodies, unlike normal pigeons which tend to be more stout. 

Carrier pigeons also have long necks in proportion to the rest of their bodies. They can be recognized by their rounded and hard wattle. 

It has been observed that the length of a carrier pigeon is nearly double that of a rock pigeon. They have no feathers below the knees and have deep red eyes. 

Related Read: How To Cure Pigeon Neck Twisting | Pigeon Neck Twisting Treatment

Carrier pigeon vs homing pigeon | What’s the difference between them?

Homing pigeons are often called carrier pigeons. This is probably because the name carrier pigeon brings to mind the picture of a pigeon carrying something, But this is not true. Homing pigeons and carrier pigeons are not the same. 

Though both were bred from the rock pigeon a long time ago, they are fundamentally different. Carrier pigeons today are bred for their beauty. They have long necks and slender bodies. 

Homing pigeons are bred for their speed, agility, and ability to return home. They are the ones which carry messages across long distances and then return home. 

Passenger pigeon vs. carrier pigeon

Carrier PigeonPassenger Pigeon
IntroCarrier pigeons are a special breed of pigeons that were bred from the ‘rock pigeon’ species in England. A passenger pigeon is a type of wild pigeon native to North America. 
UseThey were originally bred to carry messages across long distances. They are rare now and are bred only for their distinct and aesthetic looks. These are wild pigeons that got their name from their migratory habit. They were ruthlessly hunted and went extinct in 1914. 
AppearanceCarrier pigeons have dark-grey bodies. They have iridescent feathers on their necks and wings which are usually yellow, green, or red. They have piercing orange or red eyes. Their feet are purple to red. Passenger pigeons had blue-grey heads, iridescent green necks, and gray-brown backs. Their bills were black and they had red eyes. 
BehaviorCarrier pigeons were used in the early 20th century to carry messages. They could make a round trip of 100 miles and return back home. Passenger pigeons were known for their huge colonies. They migrated and roosted with these colonies. These pigeons were known to be very social and hundreds of birds of the same colony could build their nests on a single tree. 
Passenger pigeons had also been recognized for their loud mating calls. 
Threats Carrier pigeons are bred from rock pigeons. Rock pigeons are found across the world and do not face any major threat. Passenger pigeons were hunted and the spread of diseases made the species extinct in 1914. The last known passenger pigeon died in captivity at a zoo in Cincinnati. 

When did carrier pigeons become extinct?

Carrier pigeons are not extinct. They are just not used to carry messages anymore, nor are they commonly used as show pigeons due to increased awareness about animal cruelty. 

Since they are bred from rock pigeons, carrier pigeons are not extinct, and nor are they currently in any danger of extinction.

You may be thinking of the passenger pigeon, a breed of pigeon native to North America, which went extinct early in the 20th century. 

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How to train a carrier pigeon?

If you want to train a pigeon to take flights and then come back home to you, you should follow a series of simple steps. Remember that training a pigeon will need a lot of your time and patience as well as consistency.

Decide a base location

A base location is your home or where you want the pigeon to return to. Ensure that your pigeon spends the majority of its time here. 

There should be a comfortable place for accommodation and a steady supply of food and water.

Start practising

Take your pigeon a short distance away from the base location. Set it free and it should fly back by itself. You can do this a couple of times a week and if you feel your pigeon is returning back, you can gradually increase the distance to 2,3 or 5 miles. 

Slowly, you should increase the distance even more to 10 and eventually even 50 miles. Your pigeon should be able to fly back to the base location every time. 

Related Read: Do Pigeons Feel Cold? How Cold Is Too Cold For Pigeons

Related Read: Do pigeons fly at night?

Delivering your message

If you want to train your pigeon to deliver messages to a specific location, you will have to provide food and water as an incentive. 

Take your pigeon to the second location and feed it there. Once your pigeon is done feeding, it will return back to the base location. 

Do this a few times so that your pigeon is accustomed to this new feeding spot. 

Now, when you want your pigeon to go to the second location, remove food and water from the base location and your bird should fly straight to the second location to feed and your message will be delivered.

Related Read: What not to feed pigeons?

Conclusion

Carrier pigeons, once synonymous with homing pigeons, are now those pigeons that are bred for their looks, not to carry messages. 

But these pigeons have a rich history dating back to 2000 BC. They were even used in the early Olympics to carry messages to the victor’s village. 

Though pigeons are not used to carry messages anymore due to the creation of more sophisticated means of transporting messages, you can still train them the same way they were in the past centuries.