For the Birds Radio Program: Pigeon heroes (Rerecorded from 1987)

Original Air Date: June 8, 1989

The birds we disparage as flying rats have saved countless human lives in wartime. (verified date)

Audio missing


![“President Wilson” the pigeon] ( “President Wilson the pigeon”)

Heroic Birds

(Recording of a Pigeon)

Did you know that President Wilson’s body is on display at the Smithsonian? Not Woodrow Wilson’s, of course–I’m talking about President Wilson the pigeon. He was a black check cock hatched in France by the U.S. Army Signal Corps. In World War I, he served with the Tank Corps and sometimes carried messages from airplanes. Then he was transferred to the First Division, and in that service is officially credited with saving the lives of many American Soldiers. On November 5, 1918, some units on the Verdun front became cut off from the rest of the Division. The wires were down and all couriers had failed, so they couldn’t reach Division Headquarters, twenty-five miles to the rear. President Wilson was released with a message about the unit’s plight. He was wounded in the breast and one of his legs was shot off, but he made it to headquarters and his message saved the unit. Veterinarians patched him up, and he lived for ten more years–he died on June 8, 1929, sixty years ago today, at Fort Monmouth, New Jersey.

I’ve always been fascinated by homing pigeons, but my fascination grew an order of magnitude when I did some research on the U.S. Army Signal Corps Pigeon Company. Homers don’t give a hoot about the political or military interests of any country. No pigeon could possibly understand mankind’s system of territory defense through carnage–most birds are light-years ahead of us in the area of peaceful defense systems. The reason pigeons home, whether for the military or a hobbyist, is simply that by instinct they’re driven to return to their nest site and mate. When released in a strange place, they orient by the sun if possible, but at night or if it’s cloudy, they go by the earth’s magnetism. Once they’re near home, they use familiar landmarks to zero in on their nest. All that is pretty straight forward.

What seems incredible to me is that the Army trained pigeons to home in on moving tanks and on ships miles from shore. I had always thought that military pigeon communications systems were of limited value because birds could only be trained to return to one particular camp. After all, in the wild, a pigeon’s nest stays put. But in World War II, the Pigeon Corps overcame that problem by training birds to recognize a marked tank. On a young bird’s first flights, the tank would be moved just a few yards. Then, as the pigeon gained experience, the tank could be moved farther and farther. A pigeon might be taken from its nest on a month-long aircraft mission. Meanwhile, headquarters might have to bug out to a place several miles away. Even so, the pigeon could not only return from a drop-off point a hundred miles away, but then locate its home tank several miles from where it belonged.

The U.S. Army no longer uses pigeons for communication, but France still hangs onto its military pigeon service. The French figure modern weapons could quickly destroy all their telecommunications systems, and that pigeons might be their best bet of communicating in a nuclear war. As Kurt Vonnegut might say, “Imagine that!”

(Recording of a Pigeon)

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