Pigeon Heroics

Tottenham Lane, London, N8

Especially on a dull and dreary grey day it’s pretty exciting to see a flock of pigeons take to the air. Launching themselves from a selection of window sills, in a big circular swoop they swing by the opposite side of the road before heading downwards to pay a brief visit to the pavement, whence they rise fast in a seemingly organised flap only to return to the sills from which they first set out.

I love that there are so many stages of wing flap captured in this photograph. Each bird looks like it’s been deftly painted with a calligraphic brush stroke.

Pigeons are often vilified for being dirty pests despite them munching up food scraps that certain people dispose of on our pavements, and despite the lack of evidence that they pose any kind of health risk to the general public (literature sponsored by pest-control companies doesn’t count as evidence).

It used to be that pigeons were very highly regarded. They were the first bird to be domesticated – around 10,000 years ago – and have, ever since, had a close relationship with humans. They were kept for food, their droppings were a highly prized and effective fertilizer and they were used for carrying messages, thanks to their incredible homing instincts. They’ve even saved thousands of human lives.

Yes, really they have.

A trained homing pigeon can be released up to 600 miles away from its home, from somewhere it’s never been before, and will be able to find its way back all by itself without consulting any maps or asking anyone for directions. And if you so happened to attach a little tube to its leg, and placed in the tube a note written on a tiny piece of paper, you could tell somebody back home that you were going for a drink after work; unfortunately they wouldn’t then be able to send the bird back to you to request you pick up some spaghetti on your way home – homing pigeons only work in one direction.

Even more useful perhaps than the above example, a pigeon can be used to tell other members of your army that you are totally surrounded by enemies and need rescuing. Or that your boat is sinking and you need rescuing. Or that, on a reconnaissance mission, you’ve discovered where all your enemies are hiding out, so come and get them! There are many examples of pigeons helping out in this way – they were regularly used during both WWI and WWII – and there are even stories of pigeons who kept on flying to their destination to deliver their life-saving messages despite being desperately wounded by enemy fire.¬†Of all the 54 Dickin Medals ever awarded – it’s the Victoria Cross of the animal kingdom, awarded to animals for gallantry in war – pigeons have received 32 of them. With Remembrance Day only last week, it seems a good time to remember these Pigeons of War and those that didn’t make it.

On a lighter note, the world’s first airmail stamps were issued from 1898 to 1908 for the Great Barrier Pigeon-Gram Service, a postal service serving the route from Great Barrier Island to Auckland, New Zealand, which employed pigeons to transport the mail. Imagine buying a stamp to post a letter by pigeon!

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