For more than two thousand years, birds have played a critical role in the conduit of human communications. People have used winged messengers for delivering notes to their lovers, relaying time-sensitive news to fellow reporters, and dispatching crucial strategic information to troops during wartime—saving perhaps thousands of lives in the process! One could say that long before instant messaging and social media, these were the original, old-school forms of “tweeting.”
A Little Bird Told Me…
Many of us today are acquainted with fictional accounts of bird messengers, such as the owls in the Harry Potter books and films or the ravens in the Game of Thrones TV series / A Song of Ice and Fire novels. Parrots feature prominently in Chinese folk tales. In one story from Szechwan province a talking parrot plays matchmaker between a beautiful servant girl and an unmarried aristocrat (1, 2). In other stories, such birds frequently divulge partners’ infidelities (3, 4). All in all, despite the fictional nature of these depictions, the idea of humans using avian messengers is not far-fetched.
Birds have long been known to report the goings-on of folks to others and at least thought to have the ability to do so. The author of one book in the Old Testament exhibits a wariness towards birds for this reason, stating that they could potentially disclose what one has said back to the powerful and affluent (Ecclesiastes 10:20). According to Norse mythology, the god Odin had two ravens, Hugin and Munin, who would return regularly to report back to him the news and events of the day (5). And the Greek god Apollo supposedly learned about his lover’s unfaithfulness from a raven (6).
Avian Express Messaging Systems
While a few species of birds can be taught to speak human languages, training birds to carry written messages has been widely demonstrated as the most practical means of long-range communication. In the South Pacific, islanders have used frigatebirds to transmit attached messages between locations separated by sea (7, 8, 9). More than a century ago, a few folks in France explored the possibility of using swallows to carry letters and military-related notes (10). However, the most celebrated avian courier traditionally has been the dove or pigeon, with a history dating back to ancient Persia, Greece, and Rome (11).
Throughout centuries in Europe and the Middle East, people have employed pigeons for transferring information. The ancient Greek city-states used them for relaying results of Olympic events (12). In the twelfth century, the Sultan of Bagdad established communications via pigeons between territories in Syria, Egypt, and what is today Iraq (13). Later, in the 1800s, P.J. Reuters, founder of the news agency that bears his name, briefly relied on pigeons to pass stock price info from the European cities of Brussels and Aachen (14).
Relaying wartime messages was perhaps the most important use of pigeons. The French utilized them extensively in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-1871 (15). By the time of both World Wars, many countries, including the United States, either had a war pigeon program or were developing one. When other forms of communication could be easily compromised, these birds proved quite reliable and as a result prevented countless casualties. Of the WWI pigeons, Cher Ami is probably the most famous, completing his mission despite suffering several serious injuries from enemy fire, including losing one leg (16). G.I. Joe ranks as the most illustrious war pigeon of WWII. Arriving in just the nick of time, the bird’s message thwarted a planned U.S. bombardment of an Italian town recently held by the Germans, sparing the lives of allied soldiers and residents there (17).
As to the homing pigeons’ incredible ability to navigate to their “home” site, scientists have proposed several hypotheses. The birds may use a variety of “compass” and “mapping” methods (18). Some research indicates that pigeons find following the streets and highways below helpful for navigational purposes (19). And a study published in early 2013 suggests that the birds rely on low-frequency sound waves to “map” their way to their destination (20). As more research accumulates during the next few years, a greater understanding of this amazing skill is sure to emerge.
- Yolen, J. (editor) Favorite Folktales from Around the World. New York: Pantheon Books, 1986. pp. 90-94.
- Roberts, M. Chinese Fairy Tales and Fantasies. New York: Pantheon Books, 1979. pp. 9-14.
- Werness, H.B. The Continuum Encyclopedia of Animal Symbolism in Art. New York: The Continuum International Publishing Group Inc. 2004. p. 317.
- Tresidder, J. Dictionary of Symbols. San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 1997. p. 153.
- Hamilton, E. Mythology. New York: Mentor, Nal Penguin Inc., 1973. p. 308.
- Hamilton, E. pp. 279-280.
- Werness, H.B. p. 188.
- Brinkley, E., Humann, A. in The Sibley Guide to Bird Life & Behavior. Elphick, C., Dunning Jr, J.B., and Sibley, D.A. (editors). New York: Alfred A. Knopf / Chanticleer Press, 2001. 167 ff.
- Terres, J.K. The Audubon Society Encyclopedia of North American Birds. New York: Knopf, 1980. 402 f.
- Harting, J.E. “Training Swallows as Letter Carriers”. Zoologist: A Monthly Journal of Natural History. Third Series, Vol. XIII. London: West, Newman and Co., 1889. pp. 397-399.
- Greelis, J. “Pigeons in Military History”. The American Pigeon Museum: http://www.theamericanpigeonmuseum.org/military-pigeons.html.
- Allat, Capt. H.T.W. “The Use of Pigeons as Messengers in War and The Military Pigeon Systems of Europe”. Journal of the Royal United Service Institution, Whitehall Yard. London: W. Mitchell and Co. 1886-1887. p. 111.
- Allat, Capt. H.T.W. p. 111.
- “Chronology: Reuters, from pigeons to multimedia merger”. Reuters (U.S. Edition): http://www.reuters.com/article/2008/02/19/us-reuters-thomson-chronology-idUSL1849100620080219.
- Dash, M. “Closing the Pigeon Gap”, 4/17/2012. Smithsonian Magazine: http://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/closing-the-pigeon-gap-68103438/?no-ist.
- Dash, M.
- Razes, J. “Pigeons of War”, August 2007. America in WWII magazine: http://www.americainwwii.com/articles/pigeons-of-war/.
- “All About Birds: Navigation”. The Cornell Lab of Ornithology: http://www.birds.cornell.edu/AllAboutBirds/studying/migration/navigation.
- Davies, C. “How do homing pigeons navigate? They follow roads”, 2/5/2004. The Telegraph: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/1453494/How-do-homing-pigeons-navigate-They-follow-roads.html.
- Ghose, T. “Mystery of Lost Homing Pigeons Finally Solved”, 1/30/2013. LiveScience: http://www.livescience.com/26714-how-homing-pigeons-navigate.html.