Laura Erickson's For the Birds

Thursday, November 4, 2021

A Conversation with Rosemary Mosco, Part 5

Three animals have been especially important to militaries around the world: horses, dogs, and pigeons. Rosemary Mosco, author of A Pocket Guide to Pigeon Watching: Getting to Know the World’s Most Misunderstood Bird, talked with me about how pigeons have served in many militaries. 

Yeah! They don’t have to deal with traffic signs, they can just kind of fly straight away. And they can also fly –it’s hard to find exact numbers on how fast they can go, but they can go 60 mph kind of topping out. They’re incredibly fast in terms of a mechanism for getting information from one place to another. You can see why they were so useful in wartime. And a lot of those wartime pigeons would get hit by shrapnel or attacked by a hawk, and they would just keep going. They would make it, and would make repeat missions. It’s really incredible. 

I always found their service ironic, since doves are symbols of anti-militarism while we use hawks, which have never helped any military win any battle or save any lives ever, to symbolize militarism. And even more ironically, doves are useful in wartime only because all they want to do is just go home. 

That’s the thing. When we talk about pigeons racing or pigeon carriers, or whatever, what we need to remember is that they only go one way. You can’t have a pigeon fly somewhere and then attach a note and send it back. You really have to drive it back or shuttle it back, because what they’re really good at is flying home and navigating home. What they would do in wars since time immemorial—Genghis Khan was using pigeons in battles—and especially in World War I and II, we would basically ship a pigeon from the U.K. to the front and then attach a message when required, it would fly back to some guy’s loft in his backyard, at a shoestore or whatever, and then he would take the message off and alert the proper authorities. 

Rosemary told the story of one of the most famous pigeon heroes in the world, Cher Ami. 

Yeah—that part was really tricky to write. Cher Ami was a World War I hero pigeon who was released by this battalion called the Lost Battalion that went behind enemy lines and found themselves trapped in this one particular spot and they were being hit by friendly fire. So they wanted to get the message to the folks who were bombing them, “Hey, we’re friends! Stop hitting us—we’re sustaining heavy casualties.” They released one pigeon and I think they forgot to put the message canister on it, and then they released a second pigeon. Cher Ami was released in the skies and was immediately shot, and they thought, there goes our hope. But Cher Ami made it with wounds to her foot and breast—made it and delivered the message that basically said, “What the heck are you doing? Stop shooting at us,” and saved tons and tons of lives. It’s a really interesting story but it’s tricky because so many of these war stories get retold and retold and facts get added, so it was really hard to find a version of that story that was really correct. In particular, Cher Ami was probably a female, and a lot of places where you read about Cher Ami, she’s described as a he. So I had to reach out to the Smithsonian, which has the stuffed version of Cher Ami, and they’re pretty sure she’s a female, but DNA tests are pending till the end of the pandemic, which I thought was a wild story. 

Rosemary’s book talks about how pigeons find their way to deliver important messages. 

It’s so fascinating. Before I started reading about this, I thought, when I want to get home, I open my GPS. So probably pigeons just GPS in their head. But they really use so many different cues, some of which I feel we haven’t fully understood at this point, which we haven’t even identified. It’s hard to say exactly what a pigeon is doing when it’s trying to find home. We know, for example, that they’re using the sun. They look at the sun all day and they learn where they are in relation to the position of the sun, but sometimes it’s hard to see the sun. Scientists have covered up birds’ eyes, put little fogging lenses or whatever so they can see if the birds can find their way home without seeing the sun, and they definitely can. So we think they can also sense the earth’s magnetic field. There’s some evidence that they’re smelling their way home—that there’s an olfactory connection, too. They also use landmarks, too. So some pigeons are definitely looking around and saying oh, well I live near that particular hill. They also hear sounds that are deeper than the sounds we can hear, the infrasounds. So there’s some evidence that they’re listening and hearing their way home. But it’s honestly so complicated, and different pigeons have their own ways of finding their way home, which is certainly true of humans as well. It’s just such a complicated and fascinating issue.

Complicated and fascinating, yet ever charming, is an apt description of both Rosemary Mosco and her wonderful book, A Pocket Guide to Pigeon Watching: Getting to Know the World’s Most Misunderstood Bird, available just about anywhere books are sold. And remember: there are still five shopping days until Veterans’ Day.