Rat or Hero? Pigeons in N.Y. & War

Allison Hall, Ellie Horowitz, and Tal Rozen

They fly, perch, nest, hobble, peck, and coo. From the tallest towers to the back of your park bench, pigeons are, like subway rats, a natural staple of New York City. For decades they have been beloved and hated, honored and eaten. They have been used in wartime and abused in mundane time. While pigeons are of course not singular to New York, they have been recently deemed a “conundrum” by the New York City Council (Felder, 2007), who cited that while New Yorkers suffer, other major metropolitan cities around the world – from L.A. to Basel, Switzerland – have already corrected their pigeon overpopulation situation with a variety of techniques, including oral contraceptives, feeding bans, and dovecoting.

Pigeon overpopulation in New York is not a new phenomenon. In 1927 the New York Public Library director, Edwin H. Anderson, pled to the public to stop feeding grain, bread, and “even peanuts” (N.Y. Times, 1927) to the birds, lest their presence lead to “a very real sanitary problem” (ibid). In 1919, the New York Times suggested that pigeons be kept for meat supply. “When the amount of feed and attention required are considered,” they stated, “there are few sources of meat supply available to the city or suburban householders as easily and cheaply to be had as a flock of pigeons.”

But while some killed them and some ate them, others trained them. Because pigeons are now known to have a small cluster of magnetoreceptive brain cells that have the ability to register and record earth’s magnetic field in astonishing detail (Gorman, 2012), they – in addition to being a nuisance and a source of protein – have historically been used as couriers, particularly during wartime. Pigeons were used extensively during World Wars I and II, bearing important messages for brigade, divisional, corps and general headquarters throughout Europe and the South Pacific (N.Y. Times, 1923). The United States first began using carrier pigeons in WWI late summer in the of 1918, enlisting seventy-two battle messengers to carry 250 messages, seventy-eight of which “were listed as ‘urgent and important’” (ibid). During this first sortie, every message was delivered and every pigeon returned safely.

Upon returning home to the U.S., many pigeons were recommended to receive Distinguished Service Crosses and veterans’ places of honor at social functions and at the pigeon training quarters of the United States Signal Corps (N.Y. Times 1931). In 1943, a carrier pigeon only known as No. 1169 received an army citation for meritorious service after delivering the location of a lost schooner to its home loft in a matter of hours (The U.P., 1943). Another pigeon, Cher Ami, is immortalized at the Smithsonian Institute in Washington. After having been cut off and surrounded by enemy troops for three days, Cher Ami was cast into heavy artillery fire—“the last hope of the Lost Battalion” (ibid), who had tried to send runners and all other pigeons to no avail. She carried the message on a wounded leg, and came home without an eye.

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