Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Carrier Pigeons

I have mentioned previously on this blog that I enjoy following many of the institutions that post photos in Flickr's Commons, which showcases images from public libraries and archives. Most of the photos are in the public domain or have no copyright claims; many show historic events or people. Occasionally there will be something bird or nature-related, such as the photos of Jamaica Bay in the 1970s that I posted here a few months ago.

Recently, the National Library of Scotland, a newcomer to the Commons, uploaded a series of images of World War I. The photographs mostly show activity behind the front lines, such as soldiers resting or supply trucks being loaded. One series of photographs shows carrier pigeons. During World War I, this proved to be a more reliable way of transmitting information from advance units than telegraphs or other methods. According to the text on this photo of a French pigeon trainer, "On September 11, 1914, the French gave 15 pigeons to the British Intelligence Service. By 1918 there were some 20,000 birds and 380 expert pigeon trainers in the British Army alone."

Rock Pigeons (Columba livia) were prized for their ability to find their way back to a home location, even if they were released far away from there. Army units could carry pigeons with them and then tie a message to a bird's leg and release it to carry the message back to the bird's home base, where someone would receive the message. The first photo on this post shows a soldier tying a note to a pigeon's leg.

Pigeons were housed and bred behind the front lines. Some injured pigeons, like the ones above, were kept as breeders. Two of those three pigeons lost legs while in flight.

The last photo shows pigeon chicks.

Photos link through to the original images.