Pigeon post: sniffing the way home

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It was the fattest pigeon I have ever seen.

It eyed a six foot bird feeder with the zeal of a professional steeplejack. And then, improbably, the huge ungainly bird opened its wings and began, tortuously, to waft the air in its vicinity.

The little pigeon wings do not grow in size to compensate for portly pigeons. They lifted this great pudding of an overfed bird into a kind of juddering flight, veering crazily this way and that in the manner of a sozzled louche dandy on his way home in the early hours of a London morning.

He rose inexorably higher, a triumph of willpower over basic physics, until he reached the bar by the hole where the seeds could be had.

We knew that pole could no more take this pigeon’s weight than a cocktail stick support an entire grapefruit. And we watched as, slowly, the seed feeder pole, previously stood at a proud 90 degree angle to the ground, six feet tall, began to list dangerously.

The other birds took one look and shot off. But the pigeon sat there, taking the air, considering his next outsize move.

The pole came to rest at 45 degrees to the ground as we sat and watched through the glass of the restaurant, crying tears of mirth.

As we got up from the table to leave he was still sitting there.

It is incidents such as this which have convinced us all that the pigeon is not the brightest fairy light in the string.

It is common as muck. Google pigeon distribution and you will find they are basically everywhere. Everywhere except the Sahara Desert and the Arctic.

And yet today, we hear, a pigeon’s valiant deeds are being trumpeted, and its message rushed straight to code-cracking experts at the brain-drain to rule them all, Bletchley Park.

The news story broke yesterday: Dave Martin was renovating his Surrey chimney when pigeon bones began, one by one, to drop down. And finally, down dropped an unceremonious pigeon leg with a small red canister attached to it.

It has been confirmed to be a World War II message, in code, destined for Bletchley Park, the UK’s National Codes and Cipher Centre.

The heroic pigeon in question had almost made it home before it got a got confused and fell down a chimney.

No one seems to be mourning the pigeon. They have honoured three of the War’s greatest pigeon heroes by stuffing them and standing them up in the Imperial War Museum North for tourists to gawp at.

The sight of the forlorn little leg with a message which never got there: it made me think. Such a very simple creature, carrying messages from complex minds.

How do these birds keep such exalted company?

The pigeon has one overriding strength: it knows how to go home.

It knows this not because of a high IQ, but because it has a nerve in its beak which can detect magnetic fields. But over and above this, pigeons have a sense of smell which can rival a bloodhound. Their mental map of the world is made of odours, according to new research by an Italian team, reported in BBC Earth News in 2011.

They fly over a constantly changing, subtle, dynamic smellscape. A pigeon’s SQ is out of this world.

So our common, portly friends have distinguished themselves even though they are of very little brain. And they did it by doing what comes naturally: going home. But doing it efficiently, relentlessly, without exception. They have won medals and acclaim, carried vital supplies from hispital to hospital, even been employed by MI5.

Going home has backfired on occasion: there’s a leg with a message on to prove it – but their dogged persistence in trying to get home: it has rendered them heroic in men’s eyes.

Because they did what they were created to do.

Sniff their way home.


44 thoughts on “Pigeon post: sniffing the way home

  1. Below is a modern poem on Darwin and his pigeonsΒ 
    by kind permission of Anne Bryan

    He watched men take a pigeon in the hand
    examine feathers, beak, each feature traced
    in their mind’s eye, each new potential scanned,
    the offspring judged, selected, each one placed
    appropriately in pies or breeding schemes.
    Men homing in to make their dreams come true
    bewildering varieties of dreams –
    white fantails, tumblers, pigeons racing through
    the dynasties of Egypt, Persia. Doves
    to speed the news from bloody fields of war
    to flutter strut and coo in courts of love
    When Darwin’s doves had fledged, like hopeful Noah
    he launched them on the stormy sky to rove
    and roost in places that he never saw

  2. This is the first I’ve heard of this story Kate, it’s quite sad actually. So near and yet so far. I’m not a pigeon lover myself, but I am fascinated by how they can get back home from anywhere!

  3. They must crack the code, even now, lest the poor pigeon’s work would be in vain. What a true soldier this pigeon was, giving his life for country. Fascinating, Kate, about their sense of smell being so keen as to sniff their way home.

    I’ve seen pigeons on our finch feeder. It is a funny sight to behold. I can just imagine that pole bending to 45Β° – even funnier after a drink.

  4. Pigeons are pretty. It’s just that there are so many of them. I prefer them to Grackles, those huge black birds whose cry sounds like crackling cellophane paper. Cooing is a soothing sound. Some pigeons have that abalone-shell, mother-of-pearl look on the neck, like gasoline in the water.
    Maybe Hitler was trying to make a deal and now we’ll never know, if that’s what’s on the red canister. Maybe the pigeon was a double agent. Maybe a James Bond pigeon had a big fight with the canister pigeon in the chimney and left him there. Without the James Bond pigeon, I shudder to think what might have happened.
    My first husband found a young pigeon in the park when he was walking (my husband, not the pigeon) and brought him home. Named Duffy, the pigeon grew and left copious amounts of excrement all over our newspapered carpet. Pigeons can whack you on the shins with their wings if you get close, and it can smart.
    Duffy grew up and eventually took off with a group of pigeons who flew by our patio where Duffy was sunning himself. The carpet was never the same.

    1. Hello, Gale: thank you for your comment. I sense a kindred spirit, you describe the pigeon’s attributes so vividly! I feel it could be vital to pitch this comment to some Hollywood directors within the next few days. The pigeon-grappling-in-the-chimney action sequence has exceptional promise. Although who one might choose to cast the James Bond pigeon, I don’t know: he would have to have a magnetic charm.

      I shall be sure, should I ever come across a pigeon in a park, to leave it be and call the RSPCA instead. My carpet couldn’t stand the action.

  5. Fascinating!
    At least they do mostly find their way home. The other reputation, in their dove guise, is vastly overrated. According to my observations they are not peaceful creatures at all. I’ve seen them pecking the heck out of one another.

  6. Am just not a pigeon person for some reason. I marvel at their homing instinct just like everyone else, but they just irk me and am not sure why. Perhaps it is that they always seem so ebullient. And being over happy just seems unnatural.

    1. Some of my relatives call them airborne rats, though I think that might be taking it a little too far, Hudson. They do seem happy; but I wonder if that is just the vacancy of very little brain….

  7. I hard a hearty laugh at this, Kate:

    The little pigeon wings do not grow in size to compensate for portly pigeons. They lifted this great pudding of an overfed bird into a kind of juddering flight, veering crazily this way and that in the manner of a sozzled louche dandy on his way home in the early hours of a London morning.

    And loved:

    Because they did what they were created to do.

    May we each do the same.

  8. What an amazing story! They just must crack the code…please provide an addendum should there be more to tell. I’ve not heard a thing about this. My husband, as a boy, raised carrier pigeons and I have forgotten exactly how this all went. I know he let them loose and they returned, but you have given me the idea that I must ask him to repeat it all to me. I’m sure even our children don’t know about this. Such an odd hobby, but childhood was much simpler “way back then,” too! πŸ™‚

  9. I had to laugh at your portly Pigeon story Kate and agree that Pigeons are not the smartest tools in the box! We have our own numbskull that has taken to trying to extract food from a hanging feeder. Fortunately my feeders are suspended using antenna wire from wall mounted T-brackets that are designed to hold up antennas in all weathers – so there’s no danger of the feeders being brought down by a Pigeon. But this Pigeon clings to the foot stand, flapping its wings desperately to maintain balance whilst trying to pick out a seed or two. It doesn’t succeed in hanging there for long before it has to give up and fall away. The other Pigeons look on in amazement and metaphorically shake their heads at the stupidity of expending so much energy for so little reward!

    If you haven’t seen the cartoon film Valiant, I’d recommend it for a few belly laughs. It does highlight one thing at the end – of all the Dickin Medal’s awarded for bravery 32 have gone to Pigeons. Quite a few relate to saving ditched aircrew but there are also awards for carrying messages from agents in occupied France.

    There were two Pigeons talking in a bar, one with a black-eye who says “I thought she was a Would Pigeon, but she wouldn’t” πŸ˜‰

    1. πŸ˜€ Wonderful, Martin. I am a big Valiant fan- the first time we watched it we were in a house overlooking the English Channel and the White Cliffs and a buoy just like the ones in the opening scene of the film. Fell head over heels for the whole concept.And as for Ricky Gervase, well….

  10. How very interesting.As I read this I heard a thump…. a pigeon flying into an upstairs window!

    (“It is common as much” – did you mean muck?)

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