In the aftermath of a recent deadly gun battle in Gurdaspur, a district in the Northwest corner of India, residents from cities in the surrounding area were instructed to report any suspicious activity to authorities. So this past May 25th in Amritsar, India, when Harbans Lal Saini saw what looked like an outsider just beyond his property, he immediately did as directed. He alerted the local police.
The police took the shady foreigner into custody, claiming that they were able to confirm alien nativity through discernable physical traits. They then frisked the imposter and found a suspicious ring on its foot and a Pakistani address and phone number inscribed on its feathers. This was far from the first time that a homing pigeon had been detained under suspicion of espionage.
Homing pigeons were first used as a method of communication 3,000 years ago by the Egyptian and Persian empires because their postal swiftness was far superior to that of the human on horseback. And so it was that as other nations discovered the homing pigeon’s inclination for long distance messaging, this unlikely bird became a disseminator of some of mankind’s most important and historical news.
In 776 BC, for example, a homing pigeon circulated the outcome of the first Olympic Games. In 1815 a pigeon spread the word of Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo. And because they were faster than trains, in 1849 pigeons gave Paul Reuter the advantage he needed to edge out the competition and begin the news wire service, Reuters. By the mid 19th century, however, homing pigeons everywhere were promptly dismissed by the media as developments in wireless telegraphy threatened to replace them. But in due time, the pigeon’s innate ability to home with astonishing accuracy and velocity would once again be coveted.
In World War I a platoon of trained pigeons joined the 77th division for the Battle of Argonne. German soldiers had surrounded a missing battalion of Allied forces when a pigeon named Cheri Ami flew through German gunfire and, despite taking a bullet in the breast and sustaining injuries that blinded one eye and nearly took off a leg, successfully delivered a message communicating the missing battalion’s position. Because this missing Allied battalion was taking friendly fire, by delivering the message Cheri Ami the pigeon saved the lives of 200 soldiers. Ami succumbed to its wounds shortly after the war, but it can still be appreciated at the Smithsonian Museum of American History where its body is stuffed and on display. Also during World War II, as part of their intelligence gathering, Allied Forces air-dropped homing pigeons behind enemy lines so locals could relay information on troop movements.
When they weren’t saving lives, pigeons were–and still are–sources of big money and big fun, too (and big corporate projects as Michael Lowe wrote a blog post about). Pigeon racing has been an international sport for nearly two centuries with substantial cash prizes at stake for the owners of pigeons that are the most efficient in both flying and homing. (Clich here to read Alisa Opar's Post about Mike Tyson's new pigeon racing reality show)
The fact that pigeons have an uncanny ability to find their way has been known for a few millennia, but exactly how pigeons home is still a mystery. In his research study Homing Pigeons: Observations, Experiments, and Confusions, ornithologist Charles Walcott estimates that pigeons are equipped with a magnetic compass. But judging from the title of a study that includes the word “confusion,” and by statements in his concluding summary— “Because they generally home successfully from any direction and distance from the loft, without requiring information on the outward journey, it seems likely that they use some form of coordinate system.”—it seems that Walcott is still baffled.
In her new book , I am Not a Number Claire Wolfe predicted that because wire-tapping and email hacking has become more prevalent, the day will come when pigeons are once again needed as message carriers - although, given the recent incident in India, it’s possible the day has already arrived.
Pigeons have been detained elsewhere too. Two years ago in Iran, two pigeons with mysterious markings were found near a nuclear facility in Natanz and were apprehended by Iranian authorities for suspected spying.
As for the fate of the alleged undercover pigeon in India, when last reported by a Sri Lankan Newspaper, the suspect was transported 40 kilometers to a police station in Ramdas, where it was being held. Even if this supposed Pakistani spy pigeon, or the two homing pigeons in Iran, were falsely accused of espionage–a very likely scenario–it is clear from the attention and suspicion they have garnered that the pigeon still is, and perhaps always will be, far more than just a feckless defecator that entertains old men on park benches.
(Read about another headline making pigeon named Boomerang)