A carrier pigeon is a domesticated rock pigeon that is trained to carry messages. All pigeons are born with the innate ability to find their way home. Some scientists suggest the magnetite found in beaks works like a compass in tandem with the earth's magnetic fields to keep the birds oriented in flight. Others believe the pigeons follow familiar landmarks, migratory instincts or sense of smell. It is agreed that homing pigeons will complete every trip without fail unless they meet with interference from things like cell towers, sunspots or storms, which can throw them off course, or are injured or killed along the way. The carrier pigeon is also generally useless on foggy or cloudy days.
The carrier pigeon is predominately blue-gray with dark bands on each wing. It weights 4 to 6 ounces, is 13 to 14 inches long and has a 25-inch wing span. In the wild, it can live up to four years, though it can survive up to 30 years in captivity. It mates for life and both parents raise the chicks. With training, it is able to carry 2.5 ounces and cover distances of 99 miles round trip at speeds of up to 80 miles an hour. It dines on nuts, seed, berries and grain.
The Egyptians and Persians first used carrier pigeons about 3,000 years ago. The king of Persia used them to communicate with parts of his empire. In Greece, they were used to announce the winner of the Olympics. Historically, carrier pigeons were trained to carry messages one way, toward home, after which they were transported overland to prepare for another flight. Because the pigeons naturally seek home, someone figured out that it would be smarter to put food at the desired message destination. The food would help lure them there and the natural homing instinct bring them back. The reliability of the carrier pigeon has been astounding. They were once used on mail routes and even trusted with the delivery of medication. In 1977, a carrier service was established to transport laboratory specimens between two English hospitals. Every morning until 1983, 30 carrier pigeons delivered baskets of unbreakable vials back and forth.
War Time Uses
Before radio, carrier pigeons were frequently used on battlefields by forces needing to communicate with headquarters. During both world wars, coops for the birds were kept behind American lines. They were rigged with a bell or buzzer so the soldiers would know when the pigeon returned. Messages were retrieved and sent to designated recipients by telegraph, field phone or human messenger. Some carrier pigeons were awarded the Dickin Medal which honored the work of animals during war.
Young birds which have not yet learned to fly are kept in a closed area for approximately two weeks, where they are fed and watered in order to build an association between home and food. Once let out, they will fly further and further from the coop before they return to eat. At the point the birds are away for up to an hour, trainers begin transporting them longer and longer distances in different directions. Weekly training is advised to reinforce the home-food connection.