For the Birds Radio Program: Veterans Day

Original Air Date: Nov. 10, 1986

Veterans’ Day and Kurt Vonnegut’s birthday provide an appropriate opportunity to consider how birds have been used in wartime throughout the ages.

Duration: 4′00″


(Recording of a Rock Dove)

Tomorrow is Veterans’ Day and Kurt Vonnegut’s birthday—an appropriate time to consider how birds have been used in wartime throughout the ages.

Oddly enough, hawks and eagles have no history of aiding humans in war efforts–the birds used in combat have been almost entirely doves, especially the Rock Dove–the familiar pigeon of Downtown Duluth. The homing instinct is incredibly strong in pigeons. This peaceful urge to return to their home and mate has been exploited by people in wartime throughout much of history. Ancient Romans used Rock Doves to carry back to Rome news of Caesar’s conquest of Gaul. Word of Napolean’s defeat at Waterloo reached England by pigeon four days before the news arrived by horse and ship. Pigeons kept Alexander the Great’s capital informed of the progress of his conquests. They were along on campaigns with Cyrus the Younger, Hannibal, and Scipio.

During the first and second world wars, pigeons carried messages in all theaters of action. In World War I, about 5,000 pigeons were used by the American forces alone; in World War II, 36,000 American pigeons served overseas. They received such decorations as the Distinguished Service Cross and the Croix de Guerre for their gallantry. One bird, Cher Ami, saved America’s “Lost Battalion.” Badly wounded, the pigeon flew 25 miles in 25 minutes. During World War II, Allied forces dropped their better-trained pigeons with agents, to be used as a more secure means of communicaton than the clandestine radio. The first such pigeon returned from its mission in 1940. She descended with an agent at night, traveled nine miles under the agent’s sweater, remained eleven days in concealment, and was finally released the twelfth morning. She was back in her loft by 1500 hours that afternoon with vital information regarding the disposition of enemy troops, and won the Dickin Medal, an award for animals serving with conspicuous gallantry in warfare. Probably the most famous pigeon, named “G.I.Joe,” received the Dickin Medal for saving an Allied-occupied Italian village from bombing.

Pigeons are not the only birds that have taken part in mankind’s many wars. Frigatebirds, large oceanic birds, carried the war messages of Polynesians. And cackling domestic geese are credited with saving Roman civilization in 338 B.C.–they alerted the sleeping city of an impending barbarian attack, changing the course of human history.

Modern telecommunications spelled the end for the U.S. Signal Corps Pigeon Service. But that hardly means that birds are no longer affected by man’s warring tendencies. Casualty records of birds lost in wars are seldom kept, although the International Crane Foundation has been keeping tabs on the rare Red-crowned Crane population in Korea’s demilitarized zone for several years. All in all, though, it’s safe to say that birds suffer heavier casualties nowadays than they did back in the days of ancient Rome. The carnage at Hiroshima must have included huge numbers of birds. And IRA car bombs have probably killed at least a few descendants of the heroic pigeons that helped the Allies win the war. It’s a shame people haven’t evolved to the level of birds, defending their territories not with bullets but with a song.

(Recording of a Pigeon)

This is Laura Erickson, and this program has been “For the Birds.”