Did you know that a female carrier pigeon called Cher Ami saved the lives of over 200 allied soldiers during World War 1? The Battle of Argonne was raging.
The Lost Battalion (77th Division) was stuck behind enemy lines and was receiving friendly fire from their own troops, who didn’t know their position.
The Major of the Battalion was desperate to send a message to his command for relief.
The first two pigeons that he sent were shot down by the Germans. Cher Ami (‘dear friend’ in French) was the third and final pigeon with the Major. He tied a message to its leg and released it.
As soon as the Germans saw Cher Ami rising from the thicket, they started to shoot at her. Cher Ami was shot down.
Despite losing an eye, a leg, and being drenched in blood, the pigeon recovered and started flying again, delivering the crucial message to the allied forces.
For her heroic efforts, Cher Ami was awarded the French War Cross (Croix de Guerre).
Cher Ami was lucky in that she was given a name. Like her, countless other pigeons have played an important role in sculpting man’s fate over the ages.
The word pigeon comes from the French word pipio which means ‘peeping’ chick. Dove has Germanic origins and refers to their diving flight. Both the words are used interchangeably.
The domesticated pigeon first arrived in the Middle east
Pigeons were first domesticated by the ancient Sumerians and Mesopotamians around 5000 years ago.
They managed to coax the birds to nest in their farms and cities and so began to rear them for food. This makes pigeons the oldest domesticated birds.
Pigeon squabs were an inexpensive source of meat and they were easy to rear.
For millennia, they were the predominant game bird in the middle east and Europe.
The ancient Egyptians maintained massive flocks of pigeons. Thousands of them were sacrificed at a single ceremony.
Now, pigeons are not used for food as much as before. That role has been taken over by the chicken.
So, the traits in contemporary pigeons were developed for exhibition purposes or racing/homing.
One breed of domesticated pigeon called the King Pigeon is still reared for its meat.
How are domesticated pigeons descended?
All domestic breeds of pigeons were bred from the Rock dove or Columba Livia.
Some of these domesticated pigeons escaped giving rise to feral populations.
That explains why they are so comfortable around humans when other birds tend to flee.
When Charles Darwin returned from his path-breaking trip on ‘The Beagle’ after discovering evolution, he choose the humble pigeon to prove his theory to the world.
By crossbreeding various types of pigeons, Darwin proved that all domesticated pigeons were bred from the Rock dove or Columba Livia.
There is historical proof that pigeons were being bred in the 16th century. The Mughal emperor, Akbar was known for owning a flock of more than 10,000 pigeons.
He used to go to the aviary and pick mates for the young squabs himself. He also took his pigeons with him wherever he went.
Pigeons as messengers
Pigeons have a powerful homing instinct and can fly home even after being transported thousands of kilometers away.
This is spectacular considering that pigeons are not a migratory species.
Long ago, pigeons were used to proclaim the winners at the ancient Olympic games.
Ancient Roman texts mention that Julius Caesar used pigeons to send messages.
Messenger pigeons were being used in Baghdad in the year 1150.
Genghis Khan, the Mongol ruler also used messenger pigeons.
Sultan Noor-Uddin established a pigeon post in 1167 from Baghdad and Syria.
The Republic of Genoa of Italy (1005-1797) also had pigeon posts on their watchtowers in the Mediterranean.
Tipu Sultan (1750-1799) of the princely state of Mysore in India was also a pigeon fancier and used them for communication.
Paul Reuter, the founder of the Reuters Press Agency had a team of 45 carrier pigeons to transport messages from Brussels to Aachen.
The result of the Battle of Waterloo was transported from France to England by a pigeon.
Until 2002, homing pigeons were being used in the Indian state of Odisha to transport messages from far-off police posts.
32 pigeons were awarded the Dicken Medal during the 2nd World War for meritorious service.
Carrier pigeons also played an important role during the Battle of Normandy when radios could not be used for fear of interception.
Pigeons in racing
Pigeons are also bred for racing. One of the most prominent racing breeds is called Racing Homers.
The sport was very popular in Belgium in the 19th century.
The Belgians were so taken by the sport that they developed a breed that could fly fast and had long endurance, called Voyageurs.
Selective breeding has seen racing pigeons develop the capacity to travel over 1600 km in single races at speeds of over 130 km/hr (with tailwind) and 60km/hr (normal day).
In 2008, a pigeon called Boomerang came back to her English owner 10 years after he gave her away.
This was the third time the pigeon had come back. The first time he gave her away to a friend in Spain, the pigeon had flown 1200 km home to reach home.
Pigeons as symbols of love
Pigeons or doves are prized as symbols of love because the birds are monogamous.
Pigeons will stay with each other and care for their young as long as one partner does not die.
The use of the dove as a symbol of love goes back to the Middle ages when all birds were thought to choose partners on Valentine’s day.
Their association with love was so strong that a dove’s heart was added to a love portion to make it stronger.
Doves also find a place in Greek mythology. Doves were a symbol of the Greek goddess of Love Aphrodite (also called Venus in Roman mythology). Pigeons also appear as religious icons in Christianity, Paganism, and Judaism.
The Biblical Noah released a dove after the Great flood to find out if there was any land outside. The dove came back with an olive branch, signifying that there was land somewhere.
Domesticated pigeons have been around for thousands of years.
At various times in their history, they have been used for food, game, religious purposes, navigation and even medicine.
Their use as food might have decreased but pigeons still retain a special place among the coterie of animals to have served humans.