Wednesday, November 18, 2009


Canada's Gazette reports:
Birds transported vital information during World Wars and before

By DAVID BIRD, The GazetteNovember 18, 2009

I often think of my dad repairing the skins of the Spitfires and Hurricanes that were shot to pieces by Messerschmits, Focke Wulfs and ground fire over the Dutch coast during the Second World War. He didn't talk about war much, except to say that most of the time he was scared out of his wits. But David Archibald Bird was not the only "bird" over there fighting the Nazis.

While many of us refer to them as "winged rats" or "flying bags of disease," the lowly rock pigeon has played a very significant role during a number of wars, notably in both World Wars and as recently as the Korean War.

Known as homing or carrier pigeons, these birds have a remarkable talent for finding their way back to their loft over distances of thousands of kilometres and from unfamiliar places in all kinds of weather. They have been valued as faithful carriers of messages during times of both war and peace.

War pigeons were parachuted behind enemy lines in containers for use by the resistance to carry information critical to the Allies. Other birds were released from mobile lofts, tanks and aircraft to take vital messages back to headquarters. Naturally, these actions made them targets for enemy soldiers using not only guns but trained falcons. Tens of thousands died and a number became feathered folk heroes.

One such decorated bird was G.I. Joe, a genuine hero during the Second World War. Bred by the U.S. army Signals Corps in 1943, G.I. Joe lived for 18 years. In its first year of life, the bird served in Colvi Vecchia, Italy. It flew 30 kilometres in just 20 minutes and saved the lives of 1,000 soldiers by carrying a message to cancel a bombardment of Colvi Vecchia, which the British had entered ahead of schedule. For the feat, the bird was awarded the Dicken Medal, the only U.S. war pigeon to do so.

Another famous war pigeon was Paddy, an Irish war hero. He was apparently the last pigeon to be released by the Americans in Normandy, but the first bird to arrive in England with news of the success of the D-Day invasion. According to his trainer, John McMullan, Paddy was the best of the best.

The tenacity of these birds to get back to their lofts is best illustrated by the story of Cher Ami, a black check cock. This bird was awarded the French Croix de Guerre with Palm for heroic service. On its final mission, in October 1918, the bird, having been shot through its breast or wing, delivered a message in a capsule hanging from a ligament of its shattered leg. The contents saved the lives of 200 U.S. soldiers.

The pigeons did not perform these duties without help - they had handlers. One of the most famous was Col. Clifford A. Poutre, chief pigeoneer with the U. S. army signal corps pigeon service from 1936 to 1943. Widely acknowledged as the world's foremost expert on military uses for pigeons, Poutre streamlined the U. S. army homing-pigeon training and taught the birds tricks for day or night messenger duty. He also discarded the old method of starving pigeons in favour of kindness. He essentially showed that homers will return home because they want to, and not, as during the First World War, because they were hungry.

A great army racer was Always Faithful, 1935 winner of a 1,160-kilometre race from Tennessee to his New Jersey loft in 15 hours, 39 minutes, 9 seconds, an average speed of 1.233 kilometres a minute! Colonel Poutre retired from the army in 1960 after 31 years of military service.

Alessandro (Al) Croseri, who was kind enough to bring the exploits of these special birds to my attention, has captured their story in his 8-minute DVD film The Flight , a beautiful and moving homage to the sacrifices that these homing pigeons made for us in the wars. Croseri also wrote and produced a longer film The Pigeoneers, featuring Poutre.

Next time you scowl at a pigeon in the streets, think about how these birds helped saved thousands of soldier's lives during war.

For info on these films, visit