April 17, 2024

A love letter to pigeons

Erin' it Out

“That man is fortunate who finds in his breast an inexplicable love for them [pigeons]…When fortune frowns and when the cares of a harsh or disordered world seem almost too heavy to bear…then the pigeon lover finds in his birds a solace and consolation impossible to describe.”

— “The Pigeon,” p. 34,Wendell M. Levi

Pigeons: Columba livia, also known as the rats of the sky. An often hated creature, though I think it’s unwarranted.

Personally, I love pigeons. I think the various colors on their head contrast beautifully with the gray and black of their body. The way pigeons walk never fails to make me smile.

Generally associated with big cities, pigeons have been hanging around these areas for more than 6,000 years. In fact, they have appeared on mosaics, coins and in written history since at least 4500 BC in Mesopotamia. These birds were often used to deliver messages, though also occasionally raised as food.

Fast forward to the 1800s. According to the Royal Pigeon Racing Association, “there was an official pigeon postal service throughout France, and this was expanded between capitals so that a postal service by carrier pigeon between London and Paris was advertised in 1870.”

Pigeon racing became popular around the world in the late 1800s and the English royal family began raising their own in the late 20th century. Pigeon racing continues today, with the most expensive pigeon ever purchased for $1.9 million in China in 2020.

The practice of having pigeons for mail and racing in the 19th and 20th centuries came into good use as the first world war began to ravage Europe.

While there were many technological advancements going into WWI, communication was not one of them. Yes, the telephone and telegraph were available, but they weren’t reliable. Therefore, men turned to pigeons.

This majestic bird had spent its entire domestic life delivering mail. With the popularity of pigeon racing, there were plenty around for use. According to the National Archives, every branch of service used these birds as battlefield messengers, both for the Allied and Central powers, but were most commonly used by the British.

Though used throughout the war, pigeons were most useful in bringing notes to and from the battlefront. There are a numerous stories of these pigeons saving the lives of soldiers due to their quick and accurate flying.

One such pigeon, named Cher Ami (French for Dear Friend), was released as a last hope for an American artillery force when they accidentally started firing on themselves. Cher Ami was shot through the breast and leg, yet still managed to deliver her message and stop the friendly fire. Cher Ami was awarded the French government’s Croix de Guerre for her work. (After his death, Cher Ami was stuffed and now resides in the Smithsonian Museum of American History.)

A close-up of a member of a Royal Air Force aircrew holding a carrier pigeon beside a Lockheed Hudson of Coastal Command.

This work was continued by pigeons in WWII. One American pigeon was given the Dickin Medal for Gallantry, Britain’s highest animal award, after delivering a message that averted the Allied bombing of 1,000 British troops.

It didn’t take long for these war heroes to go down in popularity, though. When World War II ended, most European countries went through food shortages, leading to a large decline in the pigeon population.

Much to the chagrin of city-dwellers around the world, it didn’t take long for the pigeon population to rise back to original levels. Now, pigeons are an icon of many big cities, though generally a negative icon.

When I was in Europe, I was amazed by the pigeons there. They were so much bigger than American pigeons, as well as bit braver. I even got a pigeon ornament while I was there!

Pigeons may be considered the rats of the sky, but they’re pretty darn cute and loveable too. With that and their impressive history, I’m always on team pigeon.

Erin Henze

Originally from Wisconsin, Erin is a recent graduate from UW-Stevens Point. Outside of writing, she loves to read and travel.