Dove Is Now Night Bird of War (Aug, 1930) (Aug, 1930)

I thought that faxing maps of enemy positions from planes seemed a little impractical, but sending messages via carrier doves from a moving airplane certainly takes the cake.

Also, I love the word Pigeoneer.

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Dove Is Now Night Bird of War

Carrier Pigeons Bred by the Army at Fort Monmouth Fly in Darkness, Proving Old Fanciers Were Wrong


NIGHT flying homing pigeons, something brand-new in the bird world, have been developed by experts of the United States Army Signal Corps at Fort Monmouth, N. J., where most of the carrier pigeons for the Army are bred and trained.

In rearing and teaching these birds, the Government pigeoneers have accomplished a feat which for centuries was considered impossible. From time immemorial, it has been an axiom of pigeon breeding and racing that homers, no matter how fast and faithful, do not fly after nightfall.

World War experience showed Army officials that a night flying species of bird would be vastly superior to the ordinary carrier pigeon both in war and peace time. Immediately following the armistice, the Signal Corps began its breeding experiments. After several years of failure and discouragement, they finally have succeeded.

Now there are six pigeons at Fort Monmouth that have been liberated repeatedly thirteen miles from the special night-flyers’ loft after dark and have homed consistently. Only one of them, however, has made the flight regularly in the minimum time of twenty minutes.

Many of the night flying birds bred at the Jersey fort in recent months have been shipped to Army posts in Panama, the Philippine Islands, and Hawaii, where they have made much better records. For example, at Honolulu there are six pigeons bred at Fort Monmouth that have consistently flown at night a distance of fourteen miles in eighteen minutes. On occasion, the same birds have flown thirty-five miles in fast time.

It was on a recent visit to the fort that I learned of this interesting new development in pigeon breeding. I had gone to New Jersey to see the country’s only real training school for military pigeons and the famous hero birds which still are housed there—the pigeons that saw service with the Signal Corps in France and delivered important messages through the smoke and din of battle, some of them wounded or partly blinded by shrapnel.

Symbolical of peace, the survivors of that gallant flock now make their home in the same loft occupied by a pair of feathered German war prisoners. Twelve years after the armistice, these birds, I found, continue to attract hundreds of visitors to Fort Monmouth. Though the Army pigeoneers treat them with the respect due valiant veterans of a past conflict, they naturally concentrate their attention upon the winged soldiers of the future, and especially on the night flyers.

To ascertain the reasons for breeding this new race and how it is reared and trained, I sought Thomas H. Ross, civilian pigeon expert attached to the Signal Corps. Ross, who has been raising pigeons since his boyhood days in Scotland forty-five years ago and is an internationally recognized authority on homers, came to the Jersey post in 1925.

“Our principal object in breeding the night flyers,” he told me, “is to develop a bird that will prove even more valuable in time of war than the ordinary homing pigeon. A bird carrying its message under cover of darkness would, of course, stand much less of a chance of being recognized and shot.

“In the World War, both the German and Allied troops were equipped with shotguns for the purpose of killing military pigeons. It is even said that the German army carried trained hawks and falcons to destroy them, though how those birds of prey were taught to distinguish between friendly and enemy pigeons has never been explained, so far as I know.

“But we are not raising the night flyers for war service only. Think of the good they could do in great disasters, such as floods, cyclones, and earthquakes, when time saved means lives saved. However, it will be quite a while before we shall be able to trust them in such emergencies. Breeding a new race of birds is a slow process. The species must be developed through a few more generations before reliable communication can be had over a distance in excess of five miles.”,

Three reasons, Ross explained, may be responsible for the superior performance of the night homers at Honolulu. First of all, the atmospheric conditions are believed to be more favorable. Secondly, the island of Oahu, where Honolulu is situated, is small, and the sound of the ocean may help in guiding the birds.

Then, they are aided by colored lights placed on top of their lofts. No lights are used at Fort Monmouth, as such illumination would, of course, be out of the question in time of war.

How did the Army go about the difficult job of breeding the night flying pigeons? The Signal Corps, Ross told me, began by studying the records of its numerous birds with a view to ascertaining which pigeons had persistently flown home in the late evening or early darkness. Then test flights were conducted, in which these birds and their offspring were used. In this way, a carefully selected strain was isolated for breeding purposes.

A twilight flying tendency, however, was not the only characteristic considered in the selection of these birds for parent stock. It also was deemed necessary for them to have previously bred one generation of reliable message-carrying homing pigeons. The young birds thus obtained possessed the twilight flying propensities and the homing instinct of their parents. Besides, they were sufficiently strong physically to be trained to fly distances up to 100 miles, the minimum required by the Army of each bird that is to become part of its communication system.

As these “squeakers” had to be taught a new set of tricks, it was necessary to give them their physical and mental training at the same time. Thus, their “schooling” starts earlier than that of ordinary homers, which does not begin until the age of about four weeks, when they are able to fly. The twilight squeaker is put through its paces from the time it is eighteen days old, when it is put out on the landing board of the loft just before dusk and allowed to observe the surrounding country to familiarize itself with local conditions. This liberty it enjoys for a few moments, after which it is forced to ” trap,” meaning to reenter the loft through the trap or cage with which all pigeon lofts are provided and which, because its openings are only four and one half inches wide, permits the birds to drop into the loft but prevents them from leaving it at will. For about six weeks, these “observation lessons” are continued nightly.

As soon as the birds become strong on the wing, they are turned out of the loft each evening and given exercise flights for at least half an hour in the vicinity of the loft. When it is almost dark they are called in with a “can rattle,” a tin can containing grains or peas, and fed.

AFTER two weeks of this training, they are . taken a quarter of a mile from their home loft to a spot clear of trees and buildings and freed just after dark. Now, if they were merely liberated, the young birds would obey their time-honored pigeon instinct to sit down and roost in the dark, and no amount of coaxing or noise would induce them to fly. But if, when released, they are tossed, into the air with considerable force, they will take wing in spite of the darkness and continue until they reach home.

Following two quarter-mile liberations, the distance is increased to half a mile. After two such flights, half-mile increases are made until the young night flyers master a five-mile stretch. From then on, the pigeoneers strive for further mileage, but each mile beyond the present five-mile limit is considered “so much velvet.”

The night flyers are kept in a special loft, which they are never permitted to leave in the daytime.

A dozen lofts, each a model of brightness and cleanliness, house the flock of 500 birds now at Fort Monmouth. They are painted red, white, and blue, for, Ross told me, pigeons have a sense of color which helps in guiding them home. For the same reason, the individual nests inside the lofts are painted red, white, blue, and brown.

IN FACT, the entire “course of training” the birds receive is calculated to intensify their inborn homing instinct and key it up to the highest pitch. This, Ross explained, is the way the day homers are trained to become Army couriers:

The schooling of the newly-hatched squeakers begins at the age of four weeks, when they are released from the loft and allowed to get their bearings. Then they are taught to trap immediately upon homing from a flight. This is done by keeping them in the loft without food for twenty-four hours, after which they are taken outside a short distance and liberated, one by one. A man inside the loft shakes the can rattle, and the hungry youngsters rush for the entrance trap.

In about a week, the pigeons get the idea that they must trap as soon as they reach home. This, of course, is of the greatest importance, for a pigeon flying home with a message and perching in a tree or on a roof would make a poor messenger. The pigeoneers encourage the formation of the trapping habit by feeding the birds the moment they enter the loft.

Now the youngsters are ready for their first real practice flights. They begin by flying a few hundred yards with the loft in sight.

Gradually the distance is increased to miles; they are able to do five miles when they are eight weeks old. After that come the group flights. Fifteen or thirty pigeons are taken in baskets ten miles from the loft and liberated.

Careful note is made of the time of release, and at the loft the arrival of each bird is timed. This is done by taking the registered number on the aluminum band each pigeon carries on its leg. The distance of the daily group flights is increased until the young birds are doing 100 miles without stop.

When the birds have been trained in groups, they are flown in pairs. But an interesting point is that two mates are never released together. Pigeons are monogamous; once a bird is mated it remains with its mate throughout its life. And this mating instinct is used to reenforce the homing instinct. Before a pigeon is entered in a long race, for example, it is separated from its mate for a day or two and it will fly its heart out to reach home. When there are youngsters in the nest, it also will increase its speed several yards beyond its usual rate. A hen, however, will fly faster to her squeakers than a cock.

WHEN the training in pairs is finished, the birds are taught to fly singly. To fly a long distance alone is more difficult for a pigeon, because in a group it has the advantage of the “drag” of the other birds. Now it has to learn to be its own guide and pilot and to pick out a roosting place if night comes before it reaches home.

The average speed of a well-bred, well-trained homing bird is fifty miles an hour. Twelve years of careful selection and expert training have worked wonders with the Army birds. Immediately after the war, a speed of 1,600 yards a minute was considered exceptional. Today flights of a mile (1,760 yards) a minute are not unusual. Not long ago, an American pigeon did 300 miles at the rate of 2,100 yards a minute, which is a little better than seventy-one miles an hour!

“Doughboy” is the mile-a-minute flyer at Fort Monmouth. In last year’s national races, it flew from Chattanooga, Tenn., to the fort, a distance of 720 miles, in eighteen hours, six of which must be subtracted for roosting time. The champion long-distance flyer at the post is “Topeka Hen,” which flew from Topeka, Kan., to the fort, a distance of about 1,500 miles. This championship flight the bird achieved purely by accident. Together with a number of other pigeons, it was shipped to a fancier in Topeka, whence it escaped and flew home. Next in line is “Scott Field,” which covered a distance of approximately 1,000 miles, from St. Louis, Mo., to the fort.

WHILE these birds are regarded as the pick of the flock, none is held in higher esteem than the “hero pigeons.” Of these, only two survive. One, “The Mocker,” lost an eye at the front. Early in the morning of September 12, 1918, this bird homed into signal headquarters miles behind the line after a flight from the front line trenches at Beaumont. The American troops had been suffering great losses from an artillery nest that had got their range. When the enemy guns finally were located, “The Mocker” was dispatched to headquarters with a message.

As the bird reached home with the note which was soon to silence the death-dealing battery, signal men found that one of its eyes was destroyed by a shell splinter. Its head was a welter of blood, but it had flown on doggedly and was the means of saving hundreds of lives. The other war bird, ” Spike,” has a record of having carried fifty-two important messages under fire without suffering as much as a scratch. Most famous of all the hero pigeons was “Cher Ami” (Dear Friend), which, its breast pierced by a bullet and one of its legs torn away, brought in the message that saved the remnant of the Lost Battalion, two hundred and fifty-two men. It survived its wounds for almost a year, returned to this country in an Army transport, and was recommended for the Distinguished Service Cross.

Its record was closely matched by that of ” President Wilson,” which also delivered an important message despite the loss of a leg during the intensive machine gun and artillery action at St. Mihiel. This brave bird has been preserved and placed on exhibition in the Smithsonian Institution, at Washington, D.C.

Living in perfect amity with “Spike” and “The Mocker” are the two German prisoners of war, “Wilhelm” and “Helena.” The bands on the legs of these birds, which were captured at the front as they were transmitting enemy messages, revealed by the crown and crest stamped upon them that they belonged to the ex-Kaiser’s own loft of prize carrier pigeons.

At the armistice, nearly 9,000 homing pigeons were in service with the A.E.F. in France. Records show that the birds functioned with a higher percentage of delivered messages than radio, telegraph, telephone, or runners. Ninety percent of all messages entrusted to American homers at the front reached their destinations. This ratio, Signal Corps experts say, will be increased to almost 100 when the new race of night-flying pigeons is developed to its full extent.

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