From The Passenger Pigeon in Pennsylvania
By John C. French
The Dove Not A Peace Bird
Doves, according to popular tradition, are the last things in the world to connect with war. Doves and pigeons are, or were, pacifists of the most virulent type. Another cherished yarn has to go by the wall, for an authority says that “five minutes of pigeon-cote * * * will result in a lifetime of wondering why the idealized bird was chosen as an emblem of peace, for this stout-hearted bird, once called the “dove of peace,” is now known and cherished as the “war-pigeon.”
There “being nothing new under the sun,” one is not surprised to find that the ancient Egyptians and Persians used pigeons, just as today, as messengers in war-time. Then from the Orient to Holland and Belgium and Merrie England came the birds, the ancestors of the pigeons that have played so important a part in driving the Huns to their lairs.
It brings the subject close home to us when we remember that in the Pigeon Division of the Signal Corps, Louis Wahl and William Smead, of the New York “Zoo,” are in charge and that Corp. Donald Carter, once in the Gardens, is in active service in France, among “the doves.”
Mr. Lee S. Crandall, in The Zooogical Society Bulletin (New York), has interesting things to say about the birds. After speaking of Smerles, “Owls,” Dragoons, Horsemen, Skinnums, Cumulets, etc., he proceeds:
From this seeming chaos, after many vicissitudes, the racing homer, unequaled in speed, endurance and intelligence, finally has evolved. These three characteristics have remained the great objectives of the breeder, and color, markings, and other points commonly sought among domestic pigeons have been ignored. Many derivatives, bred for exhibition points only, have risen to popularity, but the racer, not always uniform in type and color, though never failing in courage and love of home, still remains the pigeon of pigeons.
Having proved its value as a flier in Belgium the newly evolved breed was quickly brought to America. The sport of pigeon-racing soon became popularized, and its devotees now number thousands. In America, hundreds of races are flown yearly under the auspices of local clubs and the larger national organizations with which they are affiliated. With the overrunning of Belgium by the German hordes of pickers and stealers, the great majority of the famous studs of racing pigeons were seized and sent to Germany. However, the blood of these great strains is widely spread and strongly cherished in England and in America, so that they will not become lost to civilization.
Through a confusion of names, which has become widespread, the homing pigeon is almost invariably referred to in news reports as the “carrier.” He is a carrier so far as service performed is concerned, but, unfortunately, that name was long ago pre-empted by an entirely different bird, closely related to the Dragoon and the Horseman, and known as the English Carrier. This pigeon, while perhaps originally used for flying, now is useless for that purpose, and is kept for exhibition only. It is a large bird, with extremely long neck and legs, and carries a huge mass of flesh about the eyes and beak. This misuse of names has caused much of the credit due the true homer to be given a pigeon which would not home from a distance of a mile.
Many misunderstandings have arisen as to the homing abilities of the war-pigeon. Many persons appear to believe that it is merely necessary to whisper a few directions in the bird’s ear, toss it into the air, and watch it strike out for the destination indicated. Other fancies, still wider of the truth, are numerous. There is nothing supernatural about the homer. It simply has a strongly developed love of home, a wonderful sense of direction, and the strength and courage to return to its loft when released at a distance.
Sense of direction is strongly developed in most birds. We have only to consider the marvelous migration flights of many species to realize that this is true. In domestic pigeons this sense, doubtless native to the wild rock-dove, from which they are descended, has degenerated through countless generations of life in captivity. Only in the homer has it been retained and magnified by long-continued breeding and selection for this point alone.
All sorts of theories have been advanced as to how a homer find
its way, extraordinary sight, electrical influences, and so on, and so
on. It would seem, however, that it is simply that mysterious sense
direction, common to all birds, strengthened and developed by “the intensive
training to which the young homer is subjected.” One important part
of this is, that, from the very first, the bird learns well its home surroundings.
When free flying is begun, 400 miles is the greatest distance birds of the year usually are asked to accomplish, but exceptional youngsters occasionally have done 600. Five hundred miles is the most popular long-distance race for old birds, but contests up to 1,000 miles are flown yearly. Eight hundred miles were accomplished in one day by a famous bird, but distances over 500 miles usually require more than a single day.
The speed at which homing pigeons fly is one of the first questions that comes to the mind of the inquiring layman. This varies greatly with the distance, the shorter distances naturally flown in much faster time. Flights of 100 miles with a favoring wind, often are made at the rate of a mile a minute, or even better. Recent tests under the supervision of the Signal corps showed that field messages sent by means of homing pigeons were delivered in much shorter time than by automobile or motorcycle.
The longest official distance flown by a homing pigeon was a flight from Denver, Colorado, to Springfield, Mass., 1,689 miles. A little more than twenty-three days were required for this feat, the bird flying only by day, gleaning its food from fields and poultry yards as it came.
The fastest time for 1,000 miles is one day and eleven hours,
a truly remarkable performance. This bird, rejoicing in the name
of “Bullet,” still lives in Fort Wayne, Indiana. It is a satisfaction
to know that both these world’s champions were produced in America, giving
assurance that the heritage of the now scattered lofts of Belgium has not
been neglected in this country. Grandchildren of both these famous
birds are included in the flock recently installed in the New York Zoological
Park. Others of almost equally illustrious descent complete the new
exhibit, which is proving of great interest to our visitors. –