A few weeks ago I read about a war pigeon named Cher Ami for the first time. She was a homing pigeon that served during World War I and saved 194 American lives by traveling 25 miles to deliver a vital message despite being seriously wounded by enemy fire. Homing pigeons like Cher Ami that served during wartime are descendants of the wild rock pigeon and are also referred to as messenger pigeons. The story of what these pigeons did during battle to save human lives moved me greatly and so much so that I wanted to learn more about their unique homing ability.
Unfortunately, scientists aren’t exactly sure how pigeons are able to navigate back to their home loft and what their homing abilities actually entail. Researchers have theorized that their unique ability involves everything from being able to recognize the position and angle of the sun, to a reliance on Earth’s magnetic field, and even a pigeon’s potential ability to detect low-frequency sound or infrasound to find their way home. As far as how to train a messenger pigeon, however, there is a specific methodology.
It first starts with setting a base location. Their home base is where they will be fed and watered and kept for the majority of the time. Their home is typically set up so that they can enter the loft whenever they return, however it does not allow them to leave at will. Food and water are also used as incentives to encourage the pigeon to travel from one location to the next.
Homing pigeons generally begin training between 6 and 12 weeks of age. They are taken a short distance away in a cage–a mile, for example–and released so that they return to the loft. Several attempts are made at the same distance for a week or so before the distance is increased to 5 miles, 10 miles, and so on. Homing pigeons have been known to navigate home from over 1,100 miles away.
Despite this tremendous ability to travel back to their home loft from great distances away, this is only one of their impressively defining traits. A messenger pigeon was also used during wartime because of their exceptional ability to cover those great distances with astonishing speed. The average flight speed is said to be around 60 mph with bursts of speed up to and exceeding 90 mph.
Pigeons are yet another fascinating species in the birding world and their contribution to service during wartime and in peace is miraculous and uplifting. I find it incredible that we have yet to find the answer to exactly how they are able to hone in on a home location and I look forward to future discoveries that shed more light on their awesome abilities.