The homing pigeon, sometimes known as a “messenger pigeon” is a species of Columbidae. It is a domesticated breed that came from wild rock pigeons.
Homing pigeons (Columba livia domestica) are well known for their ability to carry messages over great distances and then return home.
While many people have heard of pet birds capable of flying a message far away and then returning home, many wonder how these animals are able to perform such a feat. The answer is magnetoreception.
To draw a somewhat simplified comparison, it’s a bit like having a sense that works similar to a compass.
No matter where you are on Earth, a compass will always point north. This is because the planet we live on has a magnetic field, and the magnet inside a compass picks up on this.
Some types of birds, such as the Columbidae; have the ability to sense this magnetic field within the Earth and use it to guide them over long distances. Comparing it to a compass is a simplistic way to begin understanding the idea, but the truth is that a pigeon’s ability to use magnetoreception is far more complicated and precise than a simple compass.
A pigeon’s magnetoreception is more complex than just keep track of the direction “North.” Homing pigeons have been able to find their homes at recorded distances of over 1,000 miles.
How magnetoreception works precisely is a science that we are still trying to understand. It is a intricate and highly accurate ability that outclassed most human navigation techniques for years. Only with recent inventions such as real-time satellite tracking, or global positioning; were we able to compete with what homing pigeons can do naturally.
Homing pigeons came into existence the way most domesticated animals do. Humans captured and selectively breed specimens that best featured the traits they wanted. In the case of homing pigeons, breeders selected specimens that were the most skillful at navigation. They also selected specimens that were docile and well behaved around people.
After many generations of offspring bred from the best navigators and those most docile around humans; the earliest carrier pigeons came to exist.
Messenger pigeons have been an ally to humans for a long time; well before we ever understood how their navigation worked and before we could even guess that it was something as complex as magnetoreception.
There are records of messenger pigeons being used by Genghis Khan, making some of their earliest usage to the 1200s; and some records suggest they may have been used even earlier.
Homing pigeons were incredibly useful throughout history. This was a time long before email, phones or even a public mailing system. Messages were either delivered in person, by a private courier or with a messenger pigeon.
This made messenger pigeons extremely useful during wartime. A courier carrying sensitive information through enemy territory would have a hard time slipping by unnoticed. But while a full grown messenger riding a horse tends to stand out; few enemies would pay mind to a small dove flying overhead.
The ability to fly also made homing pigeons a more ideal method of sending messages. They could fly over things like thick forests, lakes and rivers whereas a messenger traveling on foot could be set back for days trying to get around these obstacles.
It would be a long time before technology could catch up to the messenger pigeon. But even as devices such as phones started to be used, there were instances in history in which homing pigeons were still the ideal option.
World War I and World War II both saw a resurgence in the need for homing pigeons. Communications were difficult when moving into war-torn terrain controlled by the enemy. Even if something like a reliable phone line could be established; it was too easy for enemies to tap the line and intercept vital information.
Homing pigeons were used for the subtlety and reliability to carry coded messages. A very famous homing pigeon, Cher Ami; was injured during World War I but still managed to successful deliver 12 vital messages in spite of her injuries. She was awarded the Croix de Guerre, a French war medal.
During World War II, the United Kingdom awarded 32 homing pigeons the Dickin Medal.
It is easy to see how the messenger pigeon was known as the “war pigeon” at certain points in history.
In recent history, homing pigeons were sometimes used for emergency communications after a natural disaster shut down phone lines.
Homing pigeons do not have any official use today, but many people still breed them as a hobby.
Homing pigeons are somewhat limited to how many locations they can reliably navigate; but they are able to find these locations with extreme precision.
Originally, homing pigeons could only find one location; their home (thus the name “homing pigeon). This did not take away from their usefulness. When traveling away from home, humans could release a homing pigeon periodically to send messages.
Cities that needed to stay in contact with each other could each “trade” dozens of homing pigeons and then release them one at a time to send messages back and forth.
Over time, homing pigeons were trained to travel back and forth between two locations on their own. This was done by giving them one location that they associate with sleep, and one area that they associate with feeding. By making this journey once a day, they could learn to hone-in on both location. However, this did make the distance more limiting.
When making a one-way flight, messenger pigeons have been recorded to travel successfully over 1,000 miles. For two-way flights, this distance is limited to about 100 miles at the most. Still, these distances made for the best method of long-distance communication that humans had access to for hundreds of years.
In addition to magnetoreception, messenger pigeons have been observed to use critical thinking when zoning in on their precise home. They have been observed to follow things such as roads and other landmarks to find their way.