White Homing pigeon

The homing pigeon is a variety of domesticated Rock Pigeon (Columba livia domestica) that has been selectively bred to be able to find its way home over extremely long distances.[1] The wild rock pigeon has an innate homing ability,[2] meaning that it will generally return to its own nest and its own mate. This made it relatively easy to breed from the birds that repeatedly found their way home over long distances. Flights as long as 1800 kilometers have been recorded by birds in competition pigeon racing.[3] Their average flying speed over moderate distances is around 48 km/h (30 mph), but they can achieve bursts of speed up to about 95 km/h (59 mph).[4]

Homing pigeons are called carrier pigeons when they are used to carry messages. This is possible where a message is written on thin light paper (such as cigarette paper) and rolled into a small tube attached to the bird's leg; this is called pigeon post. White homing pigeons are used in Release Dove ceremonies at weddings, funerals, and some sporting events.


Research has been performed with the intention of discovering how pigeons, after being transported, can find their way back from distant places they have never visited before. Most researchers believe that homing ability is based on a "map and compass" model, with the compass feature allowing birds to orient and the map feature allowing birds to determine their location relative to a goal site (home loft).[5] While the compass mechanism appears to be use of the sun, the map mechanism has been highly debated.[6] Some researchers believe that the map mechanism relies on the ability of birds to detect the Earth's magnetic field. Much of this work has been conducted by Rosthina and Wolfgang Witschko and has shown that alteration of magnetic fields around the home loft result in disrupted homing ability. Recently, researchers have attempted to determine how pigeons can detect magnetic fields, and two different mechanisms have been proposed. A light-mediated mechanism that involves the eyes and is lateralized has been examined somewhat, but recent developments have implicated the trigeminal nerve in magnetoception.[7][8] Research by Floriano Papi (Italy, early 1970s) and more recent work, largely by Hans Wallraff, suggests that instead pigeons orient themselves using the spatial distribution of atmospheric odors[6] (see the August 20, 2005 issue of Science News.). Near their home lofts, in areas they have previously visited, pigeons probably are guided by visual landmarks.

Various experiments suggest that different breeds of homing pigeons rely on different cues to different extents. Charles Walcott at Cornell was able to demonstrate that one strain of pigeons was confused by a magnetic anomaly in the Earth that had no effect on another strain of birds. Other experiments have shown that altering the perceived time of day with artificial lighting or using air conditioning to eliminate odors in the pigeons' home roost affected the pigeons' ability to return home.

Some research also indicates that homing pigeons navigate by following roads and other man-made features, making 90 degree turns and following habitual routes, much the same way that humans navigate.[9]


Messenger pigeons, more commonly known as Carrier pigeons, were used as early as 1150 in Baghdad[10] and also later by Genghis Khan. The Republic of Genoa equipped their system of watch towers in the Mediterranean Sea with pigeon posts.

In 1860, Paul Reuter, who later founded Reuters press agency, used a fleet of over 45 pigeons to deliver news and stock prices between Brussels and Aachen, the terminals of early telegraph lines. The outcome of the Battle of Waterloo was also first delivered by a pigeon to England. During the Franco-Prussian War pigeons were used to carry mail between besieged Paris and the French unoccupied territory.

File:Great Barrier Island Pigeon-Gram stamp 1899.jpg
File:Bus pigeon loft.jpg

Possibly the first regular air mail service in the world was Mr. Howie's Pigeon-Post service from the Auckland New Zealand suburb of Newton to Great Barrier Island, starting in 1896. Certainly the world’s first 'airmail' stamps were issued for the Great Barrier Pigeon-Gram Service from 1898 to 1908.[11]

They were used extensively during World War I, and one homing pigeon, Cher Ami, was awarded the French Croix de guerre for his heroic service in delivering 12 important messages, despite having been very badly injured.

During World War II, the Irish Paddy and the American G.I. Joe both received the Dickin Medal, and were among 32 pigeons to receive this medallion, for their gallantry and bravery in saving human lives with their actions.

Eighty-two homing pigeons were dropped into Holland with the First Airborne Division Signals as part of Operation Market Garden in World War II. The pigeons' loft was located in London which would have required them to fly 240 miles to deliver their messages.[12] Also in World War II, hundreds of homing pigeons with the Confidential Pigeon Service were airdropped into northwest Europe to serve as intelligence vectors for local resistance agents.

Homing pigeons were still employed in the 21st century by certain remote police departments in Orissa state in eastern India to provide emergency communication services following natural disasters. In March 2002, it was announced that India's Police Pigeon Service messenger system in Orissa was to be retired, due to the expanded use of the Internet. [13]

The use of pigeons to carry messages is commonly called Pigeon post. Pigeons can also carry small light-weight packages, and have been used to smuggle drugs into a prison.[14]

The humorous IP over Avian Carriers (RFC 1149) is an Internet protocol for the transmission of messages via homing pigeon. Originally intended as an April Fools' Day RFC entry, this protocol has in fact been implemented and used, once, to transmit a message in Bergen, Norway on April 28, 2001. [15]

Notable pigeon enthusiasts in the United Kingdom include Gerry Francis (football manager) and Duncan Ferguson (Everton and Scotland footballer).

In Chinese martial arts (wushu) films and dramas, homing pigeons are often used for "Pigeon Mail" (飛鴿傳書). People often labor under the misapprehension that the pigeons know where to deliver the mail. The fact is that they can only go back to one "mentally marked" point that they have identified as their home. So "pigeon mail" can only work when the sender is actually holding the receiver's pigeons.

The Taliban banned homing pigeons[16] (or probably more realistically the keeping of homing pigeons and/or the use for sport) in Afghanistan.




  • Chico, The story of a Homing Pigeon in the Great War Lucy M Blanchard, Diggory Press, ISBN 978-1846850394

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ar:حمام زاجل da:Brevdue de:Brieftaube es:Paloma mensajera eo:Leterkolombo fr:Pigeon voyageur gl:Pomba mensaxeira ko:전서구 hr:Golub pismonoša it:Piccione viaggiatore he:יונת דואר nl:Postduif ja:伝書鳩 no:Brevdue pl:Gołąb pocztowy pt:Pombo-correio ru:Почтовый голубь fi:Kirjekyyhky sv:Brevduva

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