In this 1st century BC Roman mosaic, we can see a method of pigeon breeding imported from Egypt
National Museum of Naples
The Homing Pigeon in History
The homing or racing pigeon is a variety of domestic pigeon derived from the wild rock pigeon, selectively bred over the centuries because of its innate ability to find its way home over extremely long distances.
Pigeons have been used by man to carry messages for centuries with the earliest recorded reference of the use of messenger pigeons in Egypt, from the period of Ramses III (c1200 BC), when they were used to convey news between cities regarding the flood state of the Nile.
Pliny, the Roman historian mentions them as messengers at the Siege of Mutina in 43BC, and they were used to convey messages throughout the Greek and Roman empires.
Carrier pigeons were also held in very high esteem in the Arab world, where they were called “The Kings Angels”, and in medieval times pigeons were brought back to Europe by the Crusaders.
Coming more up to date, by the 1800’s there was an official pigeon postal service throughout France. And in 1870 the pigeon postal service was expanded between London and Paris.
Above an advertisement for the 'Pigeons Voyageurs'
A beautiful Roman mosaic cAD300 depicting pigeons
But if we thought that carrier homing pigeons had little use in today's technological world we would be wrong. Conrad Quilty-Harper wrote in British GQ magazine, September 2015, an article headlined "Cocaine carrier pigeons are the latest drug smuggling technique". Pigeons can evidently fly and carry 10% of their body weight.
Pigeon racing can be traced back to the third century AD, but the sport only became popular in Britain in the late 19th century.
Belgium was and continues to be the epicentre of pigeon racing in Europe, and was where the modern sport first took off in the 1850's.
The first formal pigeon race in the UK was staged in 1881. In 1886, the notorious King Leopold II of the Belgians gave racing pigeons to Queen Victoria as a gift. Thus began the racing loft on the Sandringham Estate. Both King Edward VII and King George V enjoyed success with their pigeons, including first prizes in the national race from Lerwick in the Shetland Isles. And the Queen is said to still take a great interest in them.
The Queen and Princess Margaret with a royal pigeon courtesy Daily Mail
Pigeon racing became a sport of the masses in the early 1900’s, and pigeons were used extensively as message carriers by armies on both sides during World War 1 and World War 2.
Following the war, pigeons returned to racing from lofts throughout the country. The Queen still maintains an interest in the Royal pigeon lofts and regularly visits when at Sandringham. 160 mature pigeons are currently kept in the lofts along with 80 young pigeons. Though some of these are ‘stock’ animals used purely for breeding, the majority are used for racing. The term loft derives from the period when pigeons were housed in roof spaces or lofts.
The Queens' new pigeon loft at Sandringham 2015 Courtesy The Daily Mail which ran the headline "Palace Coo"
Identifying and Timing the Pigeons
............. and they're off!
Competing pigeons are specially trained and conditioned for races that vary in distance from approximately 100 kilometres (62 mi) to 1,000 kilometres (620 mi). Despite these great distances, races can be won and lost by seconds. The pigeons are transported to the allotted starting point, and each is fitted with a rubber leg ring.
The exact distance from the starting point to the pigeons’ home is calculated, and all the birds are released at the same time.
Understanding the Abbreviations
Pigeon racing became a highly structured sport, and many can be confused by the abbreviations detailed on the inscriptions often included on portraits of the pigeons.
A pigeon takes part in a scientific experiment
Racing Pigeons are released at a point far distant from their homes, often hundreds of miles away, and timed on their journey home. With some birds racing for over a period of least ten years.
So how do they do it?
Research continues into this remarkable ability, and there are several theories on how pigeons manage to find their way home:
- they have magnetic and solar compasses to navigate the earth’s magnetic contours
- they follow the movement of the sun
- they use their sense of smell through their wattle, the white crusty bit on its beak
- they follow landmarks such as roads and rivers. Oxford University has evidently done significant research into this technique.
- they may share the human capacity to build on the knowledge of others, improving their navigational efficiency over time. The ability to gather, pass on and improve on knowledge over generations is known as cumulative culture. Until now humans and, arguably some other primates, were the only species thought to be capable of it.
The full paper ‘Cumulative culture can emerge from collective intelligence in animal groups’ written by Takao Sasaki and Dora Bird, (Oxford) features in the 18th April 2017 edition of Nature Communications.
Homing pigeons are also being used to detect climate change, carrying data gathering equipment on their backs.
When a bird arrives home the rubber ring on its' leg is stamped by the owner using a special timing punch, showing the exact time of arrival home. Thus the average velocity, in yards per minute, that the bird travelled could be calculated. This was then compared with all of the other pigeons in the race to determine which animal returned at the highest speed.
A selection of vintage racing pigeon clocks recently sold at auction
NURP = the National Union of Racing Pigeons
A number ie 25 = the year, 1925
A alpha numeric number ie GG3058 = the birds’ registration number.
E.L. Fed for example = East London Federation
F.C. = Flying Club, which are grouped together into federations
Vel = for velocity which is the method by which winners of the races are determined.
Pigeons at War
By the early 20th century Belgian fanciers were breeding exceptionally fast varieties known as voyageurs. From the Franco-Prussian War of 1870 to the Second World War, racing pigeons were used extensively to carry messages across the lines.
In 1918 one such messenger pigeon 'Cher Ami', donated by the pigeon fanciers of Britain for use by the US Army Signal Corps in France, was awarded the French Croix de Guerre for her heroic service in delivering twelve important messages despite having been badly injured.
At the outbreak of World War 2 thousands of Britain’s pigeon owners gave them to the war effort to act as message carriers. During the period of the war nearly a quarter of a million birds were used by the combined British services, as well as many overseas countries.
Pigeons in Action
Pigeon racing was suspended and birds of prey along the coasts of Britain were culled so that British pigeons could arrive home unhindered. There were tight controls on the keeping of pigeons and even rations for pigeon corn.
All RAF bombers and reconnaissance aircraft carried pigeons in special watertight baskets and containers and, if the aircraft had to ditch, the plane’s co-ordinates were sent back with the pigeon to its RAF base and a search and rescue operation was effected for the stranded pilot.
Pigeons carried their messages either in special message containers on their legs or small pouches looped over their backs.
Quite often pigeons were dropped by parachute in containers to Resistance workers in France, Belgium and Holland. This was often very precarious as it was a bumpy landing, and it was very dangerous for the Resistance workers if they were caught with a British pigeon.
This became part of the peoples' war effort. Owners were asked to hand over their birds to the wartime effort, not knowing where the birds were going and indeed if they would ever return. The first experimental pigeon drops of Operation Columba took place at the end of 1940, and from early 1941 until September 1944 the service dropped 16,000 pigeons on small parachutes over occupied Europe, in an arc running from Copenhagen to Bordeaux. A recent book entitled 'Operation Columba, Secret Pigeon Service' by Gordon Corera, covers this whole operation in well researched detail.
Pigeon lofts were built at RAF and Army bases, and mobile lofts were also constructed so that they could move easily over land.
Pigeons from the Royal Loft were used as carrier pigeons during the First and Second World Wars, with one bird – ‘Royal Blue’ – winning the Dickin Medal for Gallantry for its role in reporting a lost aircraft in 1940.
Source: RPRA - The Royal Pigeon Racing Association with thanks.
The Social Context of Pigeon Racing
Extracts from 'Pigeon Racing and Working-class Culture in Britain, c. 1870–1950'
Dr Martin Johnes, History Department, Swansea University
Whilst researching this article I came across Dr Johnes work which I thought a really fascinating study. I present a few selected sections below, to which I have added photographs credited below. It is well worth reading the text in full on this link:
Pigeons have sat alongside flat caps and whippets as archetypal signifiers of the northern working-class male. In reality, the pastime’s social and geographic base were much wider but pigeon racing was nonetheless an important component of male working-class culture in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, particularly in the industrial districts of south Wales, central Scotland and the north of England.
Here the wooden pigeon lofts, often made from waste timber and painted brightly to attract the birds, formed a distinctive feature of the landscape. Yet despite pigeon racing’s popularity, historians have, by and large, overlooked the activity. This represents a missed opportunity: pigeon racing was intertwined with masculinity, voluntary association and material constraints, themes that are central to the history of working-class culture.
For some racers, the pigeon loft was a masculine enclave and a retreat from the pressures of domestic life, but for others it was an opportunity to share time with their families. The sport was thus part of the complex social environment in which masculinity was forged and neither pigeon racing nor working-class manhood had monolithic meanings.
Leisure was a compromise between structural constraints and cultural agency. The working man may not have been able to afford to do all he wanted but that did not stop him making sacrifices and decisions of his own and on his own.
The result of this world of cultural materialism was a fractured working-class culture within which individuals’ lived experience was shaped not only by class but also by local and personal conditions.
Not every working man raced pigeons but all would recognize the struggle between personal choice and material constraint that it presented.
It was not just the end result or the races that people enjoyed but the actual process of rearing and training the birds. Raising and breeding pigeons had a drama of its own. The breeder both controlled and empathized with the lives of his birds, from matching their parents, to experiencing the emotions of their races, to telling stories about their feats.
This could contrast with their attitudes to their families. The wife of a Welsh miner complained:
'he thinks a damn sight more of his birds than he does of me. Same thing applies to the kids. He’d see them eat nothing else but ‘shinkin’ [bread and tea], scrag end and pwdin bara [bread pudding] as long as his precious pigeons got their linseed oil, maple peas, tick-beans and Indian corn ... The bugger, to get his pidgins through the traps into the loft to have a good night’s rest, coos to them, but he never gives a sing song to the kids in a pie’.
The admittedly conditional sentiment some men displayed towards their birds that they required ‘constant and unremitting attention’ could cause tensions within the family unit.
A clerk in Lancaster, born in 1904, kept pigeons but could not afford to race them. This was not surprising given that races cost anything from a few pennies to a few shillings to enter, and club membership, which was required for long-distance races, was even more.
A Lancaster girl, born in 1883, recalled that her family even moved specifically so that her mill-worker father could have a garden to keep his pigeons in. Her parents never had holidays because her father would not neglect his birds.
Pigeons offered not only the thrills and excitement of racing but also the more sedate and intellectual rewards of breeding and rearing the birds. For racers, the bird was a product of his hobby, to be discarded ruthlessly if it failed to achieve. Yet pigeons also needed to be treated gently and lovingly if they were to be trained to want to return to their lofts as quickly as possible.
For some working- class families, open displays of emotion towards pigeons contrasted uncomfortably with the more suppressed relations that working men presented to their spouses and children.
Breeding was a long and skilled process and there was a considerable investment of knowledge in a bird. Feeding and breeding techniques were carefully developed and often closely guarded secrets. Racing too required a knowledge of topography and even calculating the velocity of a bird was no mean feat. The British Railways Magazine noted that it ‘may seem a bit involved and a fit job for an accountant, but to these artisan fanciers [it] is just a piece of cake’. Pigeon racers were proud of the commitment and knowledge required.
For all its association with the working class, pigeon racing was not cheap, which kept serious long-distance racing beyond the means of the mass of that class.
There were lofts to buy or build and then maintain. Baskets were needed to transport the birds. Clocks and rings were needed to time and identify birds. And, of course, the pigeons themselves had to be bought and fed.
Pedigree mattered in a pigeon and determined its price. Thus fanciers traced and recorded a bird’s family line. In the 1880's the best birds could cost from £5 to £20, although it was not unknown for some considerably more and the contemporary record was £225.
A Bolton short-distance racer pointed out in the late 1930's:
‘ I think it’s folly to enter in this sport with your outlook from a money making proposition, it simply isn’t done, I venture to say not one per cent make this hobby pay, never mind showing a profit’.
Sources and Copyright:
Extracts from 'Pigeon Racing and Working-class Culture in Britain, c. 1870–1950', Dr Martin Johnes, History Department, Swansea University
nationalarchives - A blog of the U.S. National Archives
PIPA.com The History of the Belgium Racing Pigeon
The Racing Pigeon Magazine
Irelands Own Magazine
New York Times
“Cipher Mysteries” blog
Cambridgeshire Community Archive Network