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Pigeons - the first airmail service
One of the extraordinary stories told in Wings is how, through the use of humble domestic pigeons, people harnessed nature’s wings for long-distance communication.

Sandy Bartle, Curator of Birds, describes some highlights of this fascinating relationship between people and pigeons.

People use pigeons to carry messages because of the birds’ outstanding navigational skills, and loyalty to their home loft. Trained pigeons, once settled in a place they recognise, have the ability to return to that place, no matter where they start their journey. In New Zealand it is not uncommon for racing pigeons to travel from Invercargill to Auckland in just two days.

But it is as a messenger that domestic pigeons have formed close bonds with humans over the centuries.

Pigeons were found in human settlements in Egypt and the Middle East from the dawn of agriculture, probably attracted by the seeds people planted for their crops.

Pigeon Towers near Isfahan
Pigeon towers near Isfahan. Image courtesy Asar Gallery of Art

In the Middle East, wild rock pigeons found safe nest holes in the earliest human houses. At first they were encouraged for food and eggs, but it was soon realised that their rich, dry droppings made valuable fertiliser. Special pigeon towers were built so that thousands of pigeons would breed in them and their droppings would accumulate at the bottom.

Noticing that the pigeons returned to their towers every night from even faraway villages, people thought of getting them to carry messages. The first recorded use of pigeons for ‘airmail’ services was in 2900BC, when Egyptians had the idea of releasing homing pigeons from incoming ships to alert authorities to the arrival of important visitors. In Mesopotamia, homing pigeons were also used to carry messages at this time. Thus the use of pigeons to carry messages is almost as old as writing itself, and quite a bit older than the invention of paper!

Ancient Greek and Roman civilisations also used pigeon message services. Genghis Khan used a pigeon relay system to communicate messages across his vast empire - from Mongolia to Europe. The Arabs and Turks adopted this system. Around then, a pair of well-trained birds were worth up to 1000 gold pieces - far more than human slaves!

In the seventeenth century, a European traveller counted up to 3000 pigeon towers in the Isfahan area of Persia (Iran). They were constructed to produce large quantities of high-quality organic fertiliser for Isfahan’s rich market gardens. The largest pigeon towers could house 14,000 birds, and were decorated in distinctive red bands so as to be easily recognisable to the pigeons as their home.

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