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The Kia ora coo-ee : the magazine for the ANZACS in the Middle East, 1918

Pigeons of War

Pigeons of War.

There is a certain "unit" of the Army whose members' duties are performed in the air, though they do not use planes. One hears little of the carrier pigeons: they do their work faithfully, unhonoured and unsung. But they are masters of the air; they never "crash", and, if they dodge death, always deliver the goods.

The pigeons used for military service are selected by expert breeders, who also look after them—men with a wide range of experience, who can tell at a glance whether a bird will be any good as a homer. The future carrier's training begins at the early age of three months, when it makes short flights—about half a mile, The distance is gradually increased till the bird is capable of, say, a flight of four hundred miles, the average distance in a homing race. Many pigeons attain a speed of 1100 yards a minute; some even exceed this. As far as I know, the greatest distance carriers have flown, in a race, is about 1200 miles—from Bordeaux, in France, to Berwick-on-Tweed, in the far north of England. Of course, in military service such long flights are not necessary; but in short flights the pigeons have proved of great value on many occasions.

The message is written on specially prepared paper and enclosed in a little aluminium cylinder, which is attatched to one of the pigeon's legs. Then the carrier is tossed into the air; and after circling for perhaps half a minute, it makes straight for home. Rarely does a bird fail to return to its pen; whenever one has to be posted as "missing", it is safe to assume that it has been shot. Buffeted by the elements, pigeons often arrive in an exhausted condition. Even when wounded the little carriers of the air struggle on gamely and, if luck is with them, win home. A message sent by pigeon service is almost as sure to be received as one sent over the wire; the birds are faithful unto death.

Carrier pigeons possess a wonderful sense of orientation, else they would not be carriers. Some people say that the birds can actually see their "home". How could any vision range for hundreds of miles? The "homing" instinct they have in excelsis; and that is all there is to it—but it's a mighty lot. An instance of where the carrier pigeon comes in. Conditions for communication by any of the everyday methods are adverse; cable laying is practically impossible, and, owing to dull and rainy weather, visual signalling over long distances, also. But "homers" are available; and so the messages get through all right.

All the domestic races of pigeons own the wild rock pigeon as their ancestor: the pedigrees of the proud fantail and the despised "crossbreed" alike begin with the little bird of the rocks. Myriads of rock pigeons exist in Palestine, among the wadis and in rugged ravines; one gorge at least gets its name from the hosts of birds frequenting it: Wadi Hamam means "Ravine of Pigeons". Along the Wadi Kelt they abound, and also on the sides of the Mount of Temptation (Quarantania), particularly around the monastery, where they are probably fed by the monks. These rock pigeons are smaller than the homers, but resemble then closely in colour and general appearance. The wild birds are renowned for their powers of flight. If only it were possible, what a fine contest a race between a rock pigeon and a carrier would be!