A carrier pigeon or messenger pigeon was a homing pigeon (specifically a domesticated rock pigeon, Columba livia) that was used to carry messages. Using pigeons to carry messages is generally called "pigeon post". Mostly homing or racing type varieties are used to carry messages. Carrier pigeons of the Racing Homer breed were used to carry messages in World War I and World War II, and 32 such pigeons were presented with the Dickin Medal.
The sport of flying homing pigeons was well-established as early as 3000 years ago. They were used to proclaim the winner of the Olympics. Messenger pigeons were used as early as 1150 in Baghdad and also later by Genghis Khan. By 1167 a regular service between Baghdad and Syria had been established by Sultan Nour-Eddin. In Damietta, by the mouth of the Nile, the Spanish traveller Pedro Tafur saw carrier pigeons for the first time, in 1436, though he imagined that the birds made round trips, out and back. The Republic of Genoa equipped their system of watch towers in the Mediterranean Sea with pigeon posts. Tipu Sultan used carrier pigeons. They returned to the Jamia Masjid mosque in Srirangapatna, which was his headquarters. The pigeon holes may be seen in the mosque's minarets to this day.
In 1818, a great pigeon race called the Belgian Concourse took place at Brussels. In 1860, Paul Reuter, who later founded Reuters press agency, used a fleet of over 45 pigeons to deliver news and stock prices between Brussels and Aachen, the terminals of early telegraph lines. The outcome of the Battle of Waterloo was also first delivered by a pigeon to England. During the Franco-Prussian War pigeons were used to carry mail between besieged Paris and the French unoccupied territory.
Historically, pigeons carried messages only one way, to their home. They had to be transported manually before another flight. However, by placing their food at one location and their home at another location, pigeons have been trained to fly back and forth up to twice a day reliably, covering round-trip flights up to 160 km (100 mi). Their reliability has lent itself to occasional use on mail routes, such as the Great Barrier Pigeongram Service established between Auckland, New Zealand and Great Barrier Island in November 1897.
With training, pigeons can carry up to 75 g (2.5 oz) on their backs. The German apothecary Julius Neubronner used carrier pigeons to deliver urgent medication. In 1977 a similar carrier pigeon service was set up for the transport of laboratory specimens between two English hospitals. Every morning a basket with pigeons was taken from Plymouth General Hospital to Devonport Hospital. The birds then delivered unbreakable vials back to Plymouth as needed. The 30 carrier pigeons became unnecessary in 1983 because of the closure of one of the hospitals. In the 1980s a similar system existed between two French hospitals located in Granville and Avranche.
Homing pigeons were still employed in the 21st century by certain remote police departments in Odisha state in eastern India to provide emergency communication services following natural disasters. In March 2002, it was announced that India's Police Pigeon Service messenger system in Odisha was to be retired, due to the expanded use of the Internet. The Taliban banned the keeping and/or use of homing pigeons in Afghanistan.
Before the advent of radio, carrier pigeons were frequently used on the battlefield as a means for a mobile force to communicate with a stationary headquarters. In the 6th century BC, Cyrus, king of Persia, used carrier pigeons to communicate with various parts of his empire. During the 19th-century Franco-Prussian War, besieged Parisians used carrier pigeons to transmit messages outside the city; in response, the besieging German Army employed hawks to hunt the pigeons.
During the First and Second World Wars, carrier pigeons were used to transport messages back to their home coop behind the lines. When they landed, wires in the coop would sound a bell or buzzer and a soldier of the Signal Corps would know a message had arrived. He would go to the coop, remove the message from the canister, and send it to its destination by telegraph, field phone, or personal messenger.
A carrier pigeon's job was dangerous. Nearby enemy soldiers often tried to shoot down pigeons, knowing that released birds were carrying important messages. Some of these pigeons became quite famous among the infantrymen they worked for. One pigeon, named "The Mocker," flew 52 missions before he was wounded. Another, named "Cher Ami," lost her foot and one eye, but her message got through, saving a large group of surrounded American infantrymen.
- English Carrier
- Racing Homer
- Passenger pigeon
- Pigeon post
- Pigeon racing
- Pigeon photography
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