When Pigeons Were Drones
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Our military technology has come a long way in less than a century. Is that a good thing?
Next time you’re about to shoo a pigeon out of the way in, say, New York or San Francisco or London, stop to think about this: That grimy bird’s ancestors may be the reason we’re not all speaking German right now.
Before satellites and GPS and smartphones, 20th century militaries needed ways to send messages between headquarters and the front. Radio signals were unreliable in the war zones. So, as even casual war buffs know, armies used homing pigeons to get messages back and forth, especially in World War II. Soldiers would bring pigeons from the barracks to the front, stuff messages into tiny canisters, attach the canisters to the pigeons’ legs and — release! The pigeons would fly back to the barracks carrying the message, often through gunfire.
“It’s always that question mark, can a pigeon be brave?” says Jessica Richardson of the People’s Dispensary for Sick Animals, the U.K. charity that hands out an award to service animals who’ve demonstrated “conspicuous gallantry or devotion to duty” while serving in conflicts around the world. Established 80 years ago, the PDSA’s Dickin Medal recognized 32 pigeons for their acts of bird bravery during World War II. The medal has also been awarded to 28 dogs, three horses and one cat — Simon, who served in the British navy on HMS Amethyst, “disposing of many rats though wounded by shell blast.” (In recent years, medals have gone to dogs that detect explosives.)
While it’s easy to be skeptical of pigeons’ capabilities — there’s a reason “birdbrain” is pejorative — Richardson says that “when you read some of these stories about how far they traveled and how fast they traveled,” you start to realize their integral role in the Allies’ war effort. “If they hadn’t gotten that message through, there was no other way back then.”
According to the Royal Pigeon Racing Association of Great Britain, the U.K. used almost a quarter of a million birds during World War II — not only the military, but also police and firefighters on the home front. To organize their feathered couriers, the Brits formed the National Pigeon Service, tapping into pigeon racing societies and trainers across the country; there came a time when even pigeon corn was rationed for war birds, according to the RPRA. The U.S. Army had its own pigeon breeding and training center at Fort Monmouth, New Jersey, using 54,000 pigeons, all told, during World War II, according to Army records. The Australian, Canadian and German militaries also used homing pigeons, stuffing notes into containers strapped to their legs or backs, to deliver messages on battlefields from Western Europe to North Africa to Asia.
But the British seemed to have a particular fondness for their avian allies, who were probably, let’s be honest, pretty oblivious to the adulation. They gave the birds an air of nobility with names like William of Orange and Royal Blue and, when they returned home, draped bronze medallions around their little bird necks to recognize their feats.
There was Mary of Exeter, who successfully delivered a message despite being wounded in a scuffle with a German hawk and getting part of her wing shot off in battle. The Duke of Normandy was the first pigeon to arrive with a message behind enemy lines on D-Day. And GI Joe is credited with saving a whole British infantry brigade from a friendly-fire catastrophe; he delivered a message that the Americans were preparing a heavy aerial bombardment of the Italian town they had entered. Joe flew 20 miles in 20 minutes, and the air raid was called off at the last minute.
The last Dickin Medals were handed out to pigeons in 1947, and radical improvements in communication technology soon made them obsolete on the battlefield. That’s probably good news for the pigeons, since many were shot down by enemy forces. For humans, it’s a mixed bag. We’ve found more efficient ways to communicate, but then again, we’ve become much more efficient at killing one another over wider distances.