Mar 30, 2008

Pigeon Heroes

No bird has been credited with saving as many human lives as has the pigeon (Columba livia), or rock dove.  With their homing ability, speed and altitude, they were often used as military messengers.


G.I. JOE was one such pigeon.  On October 18, 1943, the British 56th Brigade was scheduled to attack the Italian city of Colvi Vecchia.  The U.S. Air Support Command was to bomb the city to soften the entrance for the British Brigade.  The Germans retreated however, leaving only a small rear guard.  As a result, the British troops entered the city with little resistance and occupied it ahead of schedule.  All attempts to cancel the bombings of the city had failed.  In a last ditch effort, G.I. JOE was released with the important message to cancel the bombing.  He flew 20 miles back to the U.S. Air Support Command base in 20 minutes and arrived just as the planes were warming up to take off.  Had he arrived a few minutes later, it would have been a tragic story.  General Mark Clark, commanding the U.S. Fifth Army, estimated that G.I. JOE saved the lives of at least 1,000 of our British allies. 


CAESAR was another hero pigeon of World War II.  He is credited with 44 combat missions in North Africa.  In addition, he completed a 300-mile flight crossing the Mediterranean to deliver an important message to American troops in Tunisia.  He is among the top six pigeon heroes, having more than 40 wartime missions to his credit.


None may have had the “heart” though as did CHER AMI.  He was awarded the French “Croix de Guerre with Palm” for heroic service, delivering 12 important messages in Verdun during World War I.  On his final mission during battle in October 1918, he delivered a message to U.S. Headquarters despite having been shot multiple times.  His eye and part of his cranium were blown away and his breast was ripped open.  The crucial message, found in a silver canister dangling from only a few ligaments left of his severed leg, saved 200 U.S. soldiers of the 77th Infantry Division’s “Lost Battalion.”  Amazingly, CHER AMI lived almost another year before finally succumbing to his war wounds.


A pigeon delivered the results of the first Olympics in 776 B.C.  A pigeon also delivered the news of Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo more than 2,500 years later.  They have been used as critical communicators in war by every major historical superpower from ancient Egypt to the United States.  They achieved a 98% success rate in missions flown in WWII.  During the mid-1800’s the Reuters News Agency operated a live telex service using pigeons.  They have been worshipped as fertility goddesses and used as symbols of peace.  Pigeons have been domesticated a good 10,000 years; since about the time we domesticated our best friend, the dog.


Pigeons have the athletic prowess of a racehorse.  They’re built for speed and endurance.  Their hollow bones contain reservoirs of oxygen and their large breast muscles account for one-third their body mass.  Weighing a mere pound, flight speeds can exceed 60 mph.  In flight, pigeons beat their wings up to ten times per second, while maintaining a heart rate of 600 beats per minute for up to 16 hours without rest.  They can seemingly function indefinitely without sleep.


Originally from southern Asia, western and southern Europe, and North Africa, pigeons now live on every continent except Antarctica.  Their natural habitat is coastal cliffs.  Pigeons were introduced to North America in 1606 at Port Royal, Acadia (now Nova Scotia).  Pigeons are cautious, though inherently unafraid of humans.  They flourish in our cities, with large buildings mimicking the cliffs and ledges of their original rocky coastline habitats.


Many famous people have been pigeon fanciers.  Some notable famous pigeon personalities are Roy Rogers, Elvis Presley, Marlon Brando, Yul Bryner, Walt Disney, Michael Landon, Mike Tyson, Jimmy Smits, Pablo Picasso, and Great Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II.  Picasso loved pigeons so much he named his daughter “Paloma,” which means pigeon in Spanish.


So how did these “thoroughbreds of the sky” come to be so hated and reviled?  Only 50 years ago, the pigeons in London’s Trafalgar Square were considered a tourist attraction with vendors selling packets of seeds for visitors to feed the birds.  Pest control companies though, saw big bucks in pigeon eradication.  After decades of bad press, the public’s perception of the pigeon has gone from reverence for its unique history to disgust and disdain.


Pigeons are an adaptable species that thrives in close proximity to humans.  They have very strong homing instincts and do not migrate as other bird species often do.  Though often seen as dirty, they are only dirty because humans are dirty.  They readily congregate and eat food trash discarded by people in city streets and parks.  When they overpopulate, the most effective way to decrease their numbers is to discourage feeding.  Cities around the world have found that not feeding their local birds results in a safe population decrease in only a few years.


Scientists predict that as many as 1,200 bird species may become extinct in the next 50 years due to climate change.  It is a safe bet that the adaptable pigeon will not be one of them.




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