Pigeon, Man’s Best Friend

Cher Ami and G.I. Joe, the unquestionable pigeon heroes of the world wars


A pigeon is man’s best friend and it has been proved beyond doubt during the course of the two world wars. The story of pigeon, is one of reverence, endurance and bravery.These birds were used by the Signal corps to relay messages from the front-lines since time immemorial to 2010, when the Indian army captured a pigeon carrying a message from the Pakistan army.

Pigeon was once worshiped as as deity of fertility in the ancient Sumeria and Babylon. In Sumerian and Babylonian myths it took the shape of the fertility mother goddess Ishtar. The Phoenician goddess Astrate is often symbolized as a winged pigeon also. The bird also finds mention in the epic of Gilgamesh (approximately 100-years before the Hebrew Bible) and it is one of the most loyal passengers on the Noah’s arc. It was a pigeon with an olive branch in its beak that heralded the hope that the flood-water was receding. Pigeon is revered by the three established religions of the world– Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.

In Judaism, Yahweh asked Abraham to offer a squab (a freshly hatched pigeon besides other animals) as a sacrifice at the altar. In the Christian lore, pigeon is symbolized as the Holy Ghost that impregnated the Virgin Mary. A pigeon is present when John the Baptist ritually immerses Christ in the river Jordan. This bird is also also present at the crucifixion of Christ. Mohammad (PUBH) had a liking for the docile bird and to this day the bird inhabits and is fed by devotees at holy temples and shrines. Chinese society also highly respects the pigeon.

Apart from being the earliest object of worship the pigeon has a unique relationship with man throughout history. It was a pigeon that delivered the results of the first Olympic games in 776 B.C. It was also a pigeon that brought the news of Napoleon’s defeat at the Battle of Waterloo. Darwin’s theory of evolution draws heavily on the pigeon. The bird was a favorite with Picasso who loved painting it and even named his daughter, Paloma, pigeon in Spanish. In the present time the bird is the ubiquitous symbol of hope and world peace ( Dove, is the French equivalent for the English word pigeon).

The first fowl to be domesticated was the pigeon, and man’s best friend was domesticated 10,000-years ago at nearly  the same time as the dog.  The bird prefers to live on rocky ledges unlike the other birds which prefer trees. An athlete of the highest caliber, nature has designed a pigeon to routinely flyover 500 hundred miles at the speed of 110 mph for several hours at an end. The bird mates for life and both parents take turns in caring for the young. It has a life span of 3-5 years in the wild while in captivity it can live for over 20-years. It is a very obliging bird and easy to domesticate.

Almost all the world powers used the pigeon as a courier during peace time but especially during war. About 500 B.C. the emperor of China in Beijing, employed the pigeon regularly for receiving messages from the outer provinces.  Hannibal employed pigeons during the siege of Rome. Julius Caesar also employed them during his excursions in Gaul. Genghis Khan created a pigeon post that spanned one-sixth of the world. In short, every major power from the ancient Egyptians to the Americans have used this bird for military courier services.

In the two world wars nearly 100,000 pigeons were employed by both the sides in relaying important messages to their home bases when all else failed. Some of the most famous homing pigeons are Cher Ami, G.I.Joe and William of Orange.  Cher Ami is presrved at the Smitsonian Institution. These pigeons saved the lives of thousands of soldiers and for their services during the war, were awarded the Dickin Medal. The British Army disbanded its homing pigeon section in 1948 and the Swiss in 1996.  These pigeons were fitted with special cameras, in addition to the message capsule they carried.

The next time when you throw out some crumbs to a pigeon, do remember the great sacrifices this unassuming bird and undoubtedly man’s best friend has made to preserve the way of life we are so proud of today.

By Iftikhar Tariq Khanzada

The Telegraph