World War Carrier Pigeons

Did you know that homing pigeons were used as carrier pigeons to deliver vital messages during World Wars I and II?
Well over 250,000 pigeons were used by the allied forces during the course of those wars by taking advantage of a homing pigeon’s innate ability to return to its nest to mate.
Homing pigeons have been known to fly distances as long as 1,100 miles (1,800km). They can fly at an average speed of 50 miles per hour (80 km/hr) and some have recorded speeds of 90 mph (140 km/hr) over short distances.
Assuming that the pigeon coop was located in London and the birds had to travel and average of 240 miles (390 km) per mission it would take an average time of 4.8 hours to get back home. But how do they navigate or find their way back home from places that they have never seen before?
It is thought that the birds determine their location relative to the home coop based on the position of the sun (mapping) and then are able to detect the Earth’s magnetic field in order to steer a course (like using a compass) to help them stay on a heading for home. (Scientists have discovered that there is a large number of iron particles located on top of a pigeon’s beak that remain aligned to north like a needle of a compass.)

The birds were used by all branches of the services and local resistance fighters to secretly carry messages back to headquarters behind the lines and played a vital part in the Invasion of Normandy as radios could not be used for fear of vital information being intercepted by the enemy. Messages would be placed in leg canisters and then the birds were released to fly back to the coop where upon arrival a Signal Corp serviceman would deliver the message to the proper authority.

William of Orange Dickin Medal G.I. Joe

The mission the birds flew were dangerous and naturally enemy soldiers often tried to shoot them down so in 1943 a medal for animal gallantry was instituted by Maria Dickin to honor the work done by all animals in war. It is called the PSDA Dickin Medal. It is awarded to animals that have displayed “conspicuous gallantry or devotion to duty while serving or associated with any branch of the Armed Forces or Civil Defence Units”. There are 32 Carrier Pigeons (including William of Orange and G.I. Joe) listed as recipients.