“You might be speaking German if it wasn’t for pigeons”
Originally published May 22, 2013
This post has been re edited many times and fresh content related to pigeons was added 5/22/18 which can be found below.
Pigeons have been used to communicate over distances since the time of Julius Caesar.
The Persians (now Iran), and even the Greeks used homing pigeons to “broadcast” news about who won the Olympics.
Homing pigeons were considered highly prestigious way back in 18th century France until the French Revolution which changed things so anybody who wanted one, could have a pigeon.
During the Franco Prussian war, Parisians used hot air balloons to deploy flocks of homing pigeons out of their city to countryside and vice versa.
With the advent of micro photography in the 19th century pigeons could carry as many as 30,000 messages by a single bird.
When World War I began armies in Europe used many homing pigeons. General John Pershing saw this and implemented the Army signal Corps which was the first military form of a pigeon communication system.
The numbers are sketchy but it’s believed more than 500,000 birds were used by the world armies during World War one.
Pigeons were highly respected because they had over a 90% delivery rate which proved to be literally life-saving for soldiers on the front line.
Putting things in perspective, at the time about the best shot they had at communicating was the telegraph – which required permanent poles & wires.
Cher Ami was the name of one of the most famous WWI homing pigeons saving an entire French battalion in spite of German soldiers shooting out the birds eye, it’s chest and a leg.
The bird was able to fly 25 miles in this condition to the command post which stop the shelling and saved countless lives.
Sometimes they didn’t make it…..
But you can see from object with the bones what the size of the canister was. The paper had to be extremely thin and light as well.
The bird actually healed up, was given an honorary Service Cross and after his death it was mounted in place at the Smithsonian Institute.
Without war the birds weren’t that necessary to the military but homing pigeons were put back in service when WWII began.
The Germans had maintained a large contingent of pigeons, almost 50,000 whereas the US let it’s pigeon population dwindle and had to reboot the program from scratch.
When entering the military at that time, if you had a poultry or pigeon background you were put to work as a pigeoneer in the military
In 1941 the veterinary service for Army Signal Pigeons was assigned to Fort Monmouth, New Jersey which became a breeding and training center.
This is where signal pigeons were bred, trained and deployed under the guidance of the Pigeon Service which was now an arm of the Army Signal Corps
In 1942 Fort Monmouth changed its name to camp Alfred Vail and began developing basically the perfect vision for the military.
Later that year the entire operation was moved to Camp Crowder Missouri where it remained until after V-J day when the program moved back to Fort Monmouth
By mid WWII the Army had more than 50,000 birds and began to focus on pigeon health trying to ensure against introducing pigeon borne diseases which affected the birds and other animals as well as human beings.
Pigeons were given inoculations, diagnostic investigating studies were initiated which all help to establish controls against diseases of pigeons.
It took about 8 weeks to train a pigeon after hatching.
When the bird was about 4 weeks old it was moved to a mobile loft which was moved daily over the next few weeks three times a day morning, noon and night.
At eight weeks if the bird could fly for an hour, they would begin to move them farther flying from 50 or more miles out and then even farther until it was determined they were ready for combat.
Once on the front, handlers learned incentives that would make the birds fly faster.
Even though hunger was a good motivator, sex and jealousy proved even more powerful.
Trainers would introduce a new male to the mate of a male about to leave on a mission.
Birds anyways returned faster if they knew another suitor was milling about back home in the coop.
Human B-17 pilots and crews had to wear oxygen masks and heated suits at 20,000 feet.
Pigeons were fine with just their well, feathers.
As high as 35,000 feet with temperatures 30 below and colder, these durable little creatures would sit with eyes half closed and fluffed up feathers for warmth.
Initially the military designed and used special drop boxes.
The thinking was these would prevent the birds wings from being ripped off in the slipstream after release.
These drop boxes would open at predetermined altitudes.
Ironically it was soon learned they could let birds out at very high altitudes at speeds approaching 400 MPH using a paper grocery bag.
The handler would slit the side and place the bird in head first then neatly fold the bag around the bird. Once dropped into the slipstream the bag would unfurl allowing the bird to spread his wings and then spiral down to “cruising altitude”
More than 300,000 pigeons were used overseas although veterinary practice was not implemented uniformly in all the war zones because of the newness of the concept of military vet veterinary medicine for the Army pigeon service.
To introduce military veterinary medicine into the Army pigeon service human trainees were given more than 25 hours of instruction on that very subject during their eight week training program.
One of the big problems was that the manuals they were learning from were woefully out of date.
As an example, although a pigeon’s pox vaccine had been developed more than a decade earlier it was never mentioned in the curriculum.
Neither was salmonellosis (aka pigeon paratyphoid) which was the most devastating disease of signal pigeons during World War II.
Salmonellosis, a bacterial infection, caused a form of lameness named “wing droop”.
It was the single leading cause of pigeon death during the war.
And spite of investigation of this disease by both the Army and civilian labs no vaccine was ever developed thus the army relied heavily on coop sanitation and the quarantine of sick birds
Housing too many pigeons in one area was obviously a big problem too.
A standard mobile pigeon coop would arrive in a war theater but were immediately remodeled based upon climactic conditions.
It was important to have coops exposed to sunlight, be dry and draft free and above all they needed to be clean.
The Surgeon General’s office provided Information as early as 1922 listing supplies, pharmaceuticals and disinfectants which could then be used by pigeon service personnel to keep pigeon coop’s clean and parasite free.
At the time the Army suggested sodium fluoride for the control of pigeon lice.
One of the companies in France built some open aviaries to provide additional room but encountered seasonal rains and 2500 of it’s 3500 pigeons got sick.
Illness was a problem across all the theaters where veterinary losses were almost equal to in-flight losses.
Veterinary losses were reduced by not introducing replacement pigeons and encouraging breeding.
Veterinary and quarantine coops were introduced to help reduce this phenomena.
In spite of the fact that the Signal Paging Company was authorized as its own organic service unit no veterinary reports on individual pigeons were ever maintained.
Feeding that many birds was also a big problem.
Large quantities of feed packed in burlap bags acquired from various zones of the interior by the Signal Corps often came deteriorated or unusable by the time it arrived in the various overseas theaters.
The bags were torn up or rodent infested and became damp, moldy or vermin infested from being at sea so long.
As much as they tried the Army veterinary service was unable to remove the damaged grains without causing an imbalance of the overall nutrition value of the feeds.
This problem was addressed by fumigating the seed then packing into hermetically sealed tin containers towards the end of the war.
The 281st Signal Pigeon Company at Fort George G Meade Maryland was successful administering vitamins after realizing the birds had certain vitamin deficiencies from eating the regular pigeon feed.
They were then authorized to acquire 45,000 multivitamin capsules for each pigeon company.
He's handled a 1000 birds of numerous species when they would visit their monthly birdie brunch in the old Portage Park (Chicago, IL) facility. The one with the parrot playground.
Mitch has written and published more than 1100 articles on captive bird care.
He's met with the majority of CEO's and business owners for most brands in the pet bird space and does so on a regular basis.
He also constantly interacts with avian veterinarians and influencers globally.
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