Birds of War

A special bird.

A special bird.

This morning while picking black currants, I had a feeling that I was being watched. I looked around and then up at the roof of our century-old dairy barn. The dairying days on this farm are long gone, but the building lives on. And there, sitting on the peak looking down from the heights, was a pigeon. Silent, stiff, a gray sentinel, intent on the view.

Pigeons (Columba livia), so abundant in cities and towns, old haylofts and silos, are actually feral pigeons because they originated from domestic pigeons that escaped into the wild. Pigeons were domesticated at least five thousand years ago, but probably much earlier than that. Special breeds of domestic pigeons called homing or carrier pigeons have been used over the centuries to send messages, especially in times of war, including WWI.

The U.S. Army Signal Corps during WWI didn’t just deal with cables for transmitting messages; they also dealt with the training, care, and deployment of pigeons. Imagine you are one of the soldiers in the 77th AEF Division – the Lost Battalion – during the Meuse-Argonne Offensive in September, 1918, and you’re surrounded by Germans. That’s bad enough, but then your own Army starts shelling you. You’ve got one chance left, and it rests with a bird. Cher Ami (dear friend) to be more precise.

Mobile pigeon loft.

Mobile pigeon loft.

Here’s the message Major Whittlesey sent. “We are along the road parallel to 276.4. Our own artillery is dropping a barrage directly on us. For heaven’s sake, stop it.” Cher Ami had flown many a mission, but this one proved his last. He was hit by enemy fire but made it back to his home coop to deliver the message and save the lives of the remaining Lost Battalion. He was awarded the Croix de Guerre. Cher Ami lost his leg and went to the US after the war. He became a national hero. When he died, he was stuffed and put on display in the Smithsonian Museum.

What makes the homing or carrier pigeons so special is they can find their way back to their home coop from great distances and over terrain they’ve never seen before. Research has shown that no matter where they’re released, they pretty much take  a straight line back to their nest. They are also fast flyers which is important when sending urgent messages. Also because of their speed, they are hard to shoot down by the enemy, although not impossible as was the case with Cher Ami.

When I see the pigeons on our farm, so plump and round, strutting in the fields and barnyard, looking for seeds, berries or bugs, I’m amazed they can fly at all. Cher Ami was shot and managed to take flight again. What an effort! Yet, once in the air, pigeons zip and zoom in a way that has often made me look twice to see if wasn’t a falcon.

After more currant picking, I looked back up at the barn roof, but the portly pigeon was gone. Back to its nest, no doubt, tending to its young. I never really liked the pigeons on the farm, cooing and crapping in the hayloft, shuffling and fluttering in dark corners whenever I walked near, but knowing a little bit about their history and their unique abilities, I’m thinking more kindly toward them. I realize they’re as much a part of the farm as the old buildings they inhabit.