It’s such a great story. An English man was recently renovating his home, and when he cleaned out his disused fireplace, he found pigeon bones in the chimney. This was not just any pigeon, but a pigeon On His Majesty’s Secret Service. Attached to a leg was a capsule holding an encrypted message, sent during World War II.
Seventy years ago, this pigeon was released by Sergeant W. Stott, probably somewhere in France. It flew across the English Channel, and made it as far as Bletchingley, Surrey, before it paused to rest on a chimney – and toppled in, perhaps overcome by smoke. It could have been heading to General Montgomery’s headquarters nearby in Reigate, or to the code breakers at Bletchley Park, though that is much further away, north of London in Buckinghamshire.
Wherever this pigeon was headed, its message was special, because unlike most messages carried by pigeons during the war, this one was in code – one that may never be decoded if it was based on a one-off key, according to Britain’s GCHQ code-breaking unit.
This story is a reminder of what an important role carrier pigeons have played in communications, even in the 20th century. Some quarter of a million pigeons were deployed during World War II. Each aeroplane flying into occupied Europe carried 2 pigeons, to be released if the plane crashed. The Dickin Medal, honouring animals that serve in war, has been awarded to a number of pigeons, including William of Orange, who brought back the first information about the failure of the Battle of Arnhem in 1944, and is credited with saving 2000 lives.
And yet we still don’t even know for sure how pigeons navigate!
Pigeons have played an important role in human history for millennia. The dove that Noah sent out after the Flood was a close relative. In fact the nomenclature of pigeon and dove overlap: the Germans call feral pigeons ‘street doves’; the French pigeonnier is equivalent to the English dovecot.
Carrier pigeons are line-bred members of the same species as the ‘rats with wings’ that infest our cities. They are descendants of the rock pigeon, Columba livia. Once they roosted on rocky outcrops, and their distribution was limited by the need to find suitable habitats, but pigeons, like other feral species, have learned to live with people. Like all domesticated animals, this is something of a devil’s compact, from the pigeon’s point of view: free bed and board in return for the occasional cull. In return for providing nesting places – pigeonholes – humans have used pigeons for food, for fertilizer and for communication.
Halfway between Rome and Florence is Orvieto, an ancient town perched on an outcrop of tufa, or volcanic ash. Orvieto has been inhabited since the time of the Etruscans, who began the practice to digging passageways, enclosures and wells out of the tufa below the city. They also dug out holes in these walls, and channels for rain water, to encourage pigeons to roost there with all mod cons.
The pigeons fly down from Orvieto to gorge on the fields below and then fly home to roost. During a siege, they provided a reliable food supply for Orvieto’s residents – and pigeon dishes are still a specialty.
As well as food, pigeons were also important for their droppings – guano in all its forms was one of the most important nitrogenous fertilizers before the chemical industry took off in the late 19th century. Dovecots served a similar purpose to Orvieto’s pigeon-holes – a safe roost for pigeons to nest and to be harvested for food – but their conical shape also made them ideal for harvesting droppings.
So far, so bucolic. But beyond food and fertilizer, carrier pigeons played a crucial role in communications, right through – as we have seen – to the 1940s.
Carrier pigeons were a necessary part of business, politics and war. In 1815, the first news of the outcome of the Battle of Waterloo reached England on a carrier pigeon. During the 1871 Franco-Prussian War, Parisians used pigeons to send information from within the besieged city – and the Germans used hawks to try to stop them.
The importance of pigeons in business, though, was brought home to me most profoundly years ago when I visited the Palais Jacques Coeur in the French city of Bourges.
Jacques Coeur was a 15th century merchant from Bourges who traded with the Levant. In 1436 the French king made him master of the mint. Over the next decade or so, his influence at the French court increased: he lent money to Charles VII, and acted as his treasurer. Meanwhile his businesses expanded geographically, until he had managers and contacts throughout France and across the Mediterranean. This network of contacts relied on carrier pigeons. His magnificent townhouse, the Palais Jacques Coeur, survives to the present day, and its top floor is a vast pigeon loft, where Coeur could keep tabs on all the information coming in.
Communication by pigeon is one way only. People carry pigeons with them, and when they need to send information, they release the birds to fly home to their nests, where food and their mate are waiting. This asymmetry of information gave someone like Jacques Coeur, at the centre of a vast network of traders, sailors, politicians and spies, great power – though such power was dangerous, and eventually he lost everything when he was arrested on a trumped up charge of poisoning the king’s mistress, Agnes Sorel.
Meanwhile, I hope that someone can decode the message found in the Surrey chimney, though whatever it says is now only a matter of curiosity. The message is 143 characters long – just too long for Twitter. But pigeons don’t tweet, do they? They coo.
This time last year:
Sea Dragons, 17 November 2011
The President and the Barmaid, 21 November 2011
Was this the real Stephen Maturin? 25 November 2011
Clothes and the stories they tell, 1 December 2011