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Military Pigeons

Rapid long-distance communication of secret information is important in military campaigns. Mobile pigeon lofts were used for military pigeon networks in WWI and WWII. In 1918 the British Army maintained 20,000 pigeons for messages.

Military pigeon lofts were placed about 150km apart. This allowed inexperienced birds to fly between them inside two hours, even in bad weather.

Pigeons are trained to return to their loft by sending them away, not far at first, but further each time. Young birds in their first year can be trained to return from 250km and, by their third year, from 650km. Over these distances pigeons average around 55kph. Experienced birds are faster and more reliable, as they memorise the landscape.

By WWI pigeons had been trained to return to mobile lofts, which moved periodically with the army.

French postcard displaying a mobile pigeon loft.

This mobile loft (see right) was built to travel as part of a military train. Its staff consisted of a commander, two privates, a specialist keeper, and an assistant, who had to feed the pigeons twice a day and clean the cages.

Every pigeon was stamped on the wings with their number and that of their loft. Registers were kept of the places from which each bird had flown, and how long they took.

The usual maximum distance flown is 1500km, but even experienced 'homers' take five days to cover such distances. Pigeons do not fly at night unless specially trained. Even then, they will fly only short distances (25km) in the dark.

In WWII the Americans had 54,000 pigeons, in addition to those of Britain, Canada, Australia, France, Germany, and others.

Altogether 31 pigeons have been awarded Dicken Medals by the United States for courage and persistence, more than any other animal. Even today, official pigeon message services are still in use in India, the United States, and New Zealand.

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