Popular Science Monthly/Volume 50/January 1897/Evolution of the Carrier Pigeon

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First published in French as "La poste aérienne.—Les pigeons voyageurs" in Revue des Deux Mondes, 1896, February 1, pp. 639-654. Author's last name is Reynaud.


THE exhibition at the Trocadero and the dispatches of pigeons recently made at sea have attracted public attention to what may be called columbophilism. They have, moreover, revealed the existence of many flourishing societies that display their activity in the training of hundreds of thousands of pigeons. It is worth while to inquire into the motives which have provoked this enthusiasm concerning these birds.

Messenger pigeons are certainly of great service in time of war as means of communication between different parts of the army and the country when the telegraph lines have been broken. But this does not account for the great extension which has taken place in the last few years in pigeon-training. Belgium, for example, has as many pigeons as all the other European countries put together. Bat in selecting and training the best varieties of pigeons the Belgians have not been actuated solely by considerations of national defense. Their interest in their favorite sport is largely determined by the excitement of gaming, and their Sunday pigeon matches are occasions of much betting. Very few persons think now of utilizing the pigeons for purposes of daily life. They have the telephone, telegraph, and mail; why should they go back to so primitive a method of correspondence? Hence an excuse is devised for relegating the pigeon to the category of luxuries. We hope to show that it is something more important. We believe that relations of every kind would gain much in convenience if the pigeon was employed concurrently with the most improved means of correspondence. This useful messenger might in many cases supplement or even take the place of the post and telegraph. The most elaborate system of telegraph lines can only serve places of a certain degree of importance, and they are not built to effect connections the use of which is not constant or profitable enough to justify the expense of constructing and maintaining them.

Most valuable use has been made of carrier pigeons in the past. The ancient civilized empires of Asia included many perhaps relatively well settled regions infested by robbers and extensive deserts through which well-armed caravans passed but inconveniently and where the most secure means of communication was by means of these birds. The Greeks borrowed the use of pigeons from these nations, and an Eginetan athlete sent home the news of his victory at Olympia by means of one of them. The Romans had a system of optical telegraphy and supplemented it by pigeons. The use of this aërial post became more and more general toward the end of the empire. In the middle ages the news of the capture of Damietta by St. Louis was announced to the Sultan by this means. At a later date pigeons rendered important services in sieges like those of Haarlem and Leyden. The pigeons of St. Mark have been taken care of since the thirteenth century in recognition of the services which they rendered to the republic during the siege of Candia by Dandolo. During the continental blockade the financiers of the continent kept up communications with their London correspondents by pigeons. After normal national life was restored to Europe and as the improvement of communications went on, the service of the pigeon post was neglected till the siege of Paris in 1870 called it to life again. But the fishermen of Boulogne, Dieppe, and Saint-Malo still send pigeons forward in advance of their boats as they are returning home, with reports of what their catch has been.

The birds that stock our pigeon houses are of the Belgian breed, which has been developed by centuries of selection from the rock pigeon. This breed differs much from its wild ancestors in habits and instincts. The carrier pigeon is not quite so large as the ring pigeon, but has a more expressive head, more elegant form, and a more brilliant and more varied plumage. The training of the young pigeons begins when they are three or four months old. They are let loose at gradually increasing distance, all in one direction, from the pigeon houses. At six months of age one should be able to return from a distance of two hundred miles at a speed of fifty miles an hour. At the end of the second year it should come back from distances of more than three hundred miles, and of the third year from six hundred miles. Pigeons return more rapidly from places lying in the direction in which they have been trained. Training in one direction has some advantages and several disadvantages in practice; but as the trainer of to-day is not seeking useful results, but simply to beat in the races, he adopts the method best adapted to his purpose. As the races at the same city always take place over the same course, why take the trouble to give the birds a various training? Under the stimulus of the races and through the training for them, a great improvement has been effected in the quality and powers of pigeons.

Two interesting questions present themselves concerning the length of time during which the pigeon can recollect the place of his home and the distance from which he is able to find his way back to it. Some birds have found their way home after five years' absence; and it is generally considered that good birds can be depended upon for six months. Pigeons have returned from Vienna and from Rome to Brussels, and others, sold to be carried away to America, have made their way back to their original owner in Belgium.

When pigeons were to be sent back and forth, it has been usual to keep two sets, with their respective homes at either end of the course; and when they have reached their home, to carry them back to the places from which they are to be dispatched. An ingenious process has been devised to overcome this difficulty and cause the birds to fly with equal certainty in both directions. Pigeons, for example, whose home is in Paris are confined for several days at St. Denis, and fed there at a stated hour every day with some favorite food which is not given them at their real home. They become in the course of time familiar with their new home and its choice dishes. When set at liberty, they start off at once for Paris, without forgetting the good things they enjoyed at St. Denis. When they are to be sent back, they are made to fast a little while, and are then let loose at about feeding time at St. Denis. They go thither, and, when they have their own way, time their going so as to be there at the exact moment of feeding. Birds have thus been taught to fly back and forth regularly between places thirty miles apart.

When a carrier pigeon is set at liberty at a distance from its home, it rises in the air, describing a spiral, higher and still higher, then takes a start. In about a quarter of an hour it will be seen again directly above the point at which it was freed. It starts thence anew, and takes the right direction without hesitation. Compare this quickness of decision with the embarrassment experienced in a strange region by an intelligent man who has read up about the country and is fortified with all the knowledge concerning it that science can give him!

The sense that guides the pigeon in its direct return to its home is as much a mystery as it ever was. It is not sight, for the bird at its highest flight can not command the vision of a single familiar object or place. Theories of electric currents have been imagined and other methods of analyzing and explaining the instinct have been devised, but they are all alike conjectural and insufficient. But while we do not know the cause or the method of the faculty, we have it in our power to modify and direct it in a certain degree. To the wild pigeon, which goes far in search of food, the power to find its way back to its nest is a necessary condition to its existence. The domestic pigeon does not have to go long journeys for food, but its return home is nevertheless determined by this question. The best fliers are those which are least competent to pick up anything to eat on the road. The sense of orientation—the homing sense—has been cultivated and bred in them at the expense of other faculties which have become less useful to them. While very poorly armed to contend with the conditions of a wild state, the carrier pigeon is perfectly equipped for its present conditions of existence and for the services that are demanded of it. Its faculties have been developed and specialized in the direction sought by the breeder. Man does not create in selecting; he exerts no immediate influence on the production of variability. He contents himself with exposing organized beings, for a special purpose, to new conditions of existence. Nature then acts on the organization and causes it to vary. Man chooses the variations which Nature furnishes and accumulates them. This is the principle, the application of which has given us races of pigeons with very different aptitudes. For example, French and Belgian breeders select with a view to success in the races, and often specialize the instinct of their pigeons. Birds from the same stock will, for instance, be trained for generation after generation to the east-to-west direction; and if we take a pigeon without being acquainted with the special aptitude of its ascendants, and try to train it to the north-to-south direction, we shall probably meet with mishaps. In England, where much fog prevails, the breeders keep only the birds that can fly through a misty atmosphere. The English breeds have consequently a capacity for finding their way in weather which would often baffle the pigeons of other countries. For like reasons pigeons raised in Sweden and Norway are able to return to their homes in the face of snow, which often puts the instinct of French pigeons to fault. The training of pigeons at sea requires special aptitudes, which a rational breeding will develop by selection.

We read in books on pigeon culture that the carrier pigeon is hardly ever white. The reason for this is very simple: pigeons on their journey are selected by birds of prey, which most readily pick out those of conspicuous colors; consequently these birds disappear without having opportunity to found a stock. This observation does not apply so much to the common pigeon, which, never straying far from habitations, is less frequently struck by the hawk. So pigeons flying near the ground are certain to fall sooner or later under the shot of the hunter, and usually leave very few descendants. This circumstance, independent of our will, often intervenes to play an important part in the transformation of a domestic species.

Selection permits us to adapt our races to any sort of service. We might, for example, create a stock of birds that would retain the recollection of their home for a very long period; we might develop the aptitude for traveling back and forth. We have sometimes asked ourselves what limit could be fixed to the utilization of the carrier pigeon. To fix a limit would be to deny the principle of transformability of species, which is a law of evolution. Our races are continuously undergoing modification, and are consequently capable of indefinite improvement. Instead of looking for limits to the employment of the pigeon, we should point out some practical object to the trainers, and tell them simply we want birds that will come back in all weathers, in every season, and from all points in the horizon. Our demand would be promptly fulfilled. The bird is very prolific, and the task of the trainer is further facilitated by the fact that pigeon-matings are for life, unless the couples are forcibly separated; and it is therefore possible, without difficulty, to keep many varieties distinct in the same pigeon house.—Translated and abridged for the Popular Science Monthly from the Revue des Deux Mondes.