I’ve always been fascinated by homing pigeons. A homing pigeon is a type of domestic pigeon (Columba livia domestica) that is bred to find its way home, often from remarkably long distances. If it’s carrying a message, it’s called a carrier pigeon. (These birds are not to be confused with the extinct passenger pigeon Ectopistes migratoria, which probably deserves a separate blog post.)

Scientists aren’t sure how the birds do it, how their innate homing ability works. It might be the birds have some sort of compass mechanism, or an ability to detect the Earth’s magnetic field. They’ve been used for thousands of years.

Carrier pigeons were used extensively in both World Wars. During World War II, they were used by both the Axis and the Allied powers. The Nazis may have dropped off pigeons on the British coastline by way of parachutes, U-boats, or in personal baggage. Then German spies on the British side took them in, strapped secret messages to them, and sent them back to Germany. When the British discovered pigeons leaving the U.K. en route back to Germany, they began training peregrine falcons to pick off the outgoing homing pigeons.

Pigeons played a heroic role for the Allies in the Invasion of Normandy, when the Allied troops couldn’t use radios for fear of vital information being intercepted by the enemy. Just recently, one such message was found on a dead carrier pigeon. The bird was found inside a chimney in Surrey, England, when the owner was restoring his fireplace. Still attached to the bird’s leg was a red cylinder, and inside, this secret coded message:

According to this article, historians believe the bird was sent from behind enemy lines in Nazi-occupied France on June 6, 1944, during the D-Day invasion, in order to inform generals back in England about the progress of the operation. It may have gotten lost in bad weather, or just disoriented and exhausted after its long flight. It might have stopped to rest and been overcome by fumes from the chimney.

This pigeon, like the other military pigeons, would have been dropped behind enemy lines from bombers. The resistance fighters would have picked up the birds and then attached messages to the birds’ legs before releasing them homeward bound.

People all around the world have been attempting to decode it, but without a special key, deciphering it seemed impossible. But just a couple of weeks ago, an amateur codebreaker appears to have cracked it, using a code book he inherited. The message seems to be describing German troop positions in Normandy. (You can read more about the code cracker here.)

Here are a few more pictures. This one shows a pigeon being released from a tank in the British Western front in France. It was a way for tanks to keep in touch with the infantry.

And here’s a bus from London that was converted into a pigeon loft, for use in Northern France and Belgium during World War I:

And, in case you were wondering, here’s how to wrap your pigeon in order to drop it from an airplane safely:


Image credits:
Homing pigeon By Pearson Scott Foresman [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
“Wireless” a very clever bird. From the British Western front, 1917, Nationaal Archief, Public Domain
Bandaging the leg of a carrier pigeon which returned wounded with a message. With the British forces in Italy, 1914 – 18, Nationaal Archief, Public Domain
The cryptic WWII message. Credit: GCHQ .
Tank image courtesy Nationaal Archief, Public Domain
Bus image via Wikimedia Commons


I just love the topics you write about, Sarah. Always a bit out of the ordinary, which makes them appealing to someone like me. 🙂 Thank you!

Paul says:

Excellent! And so glad to have the advice about dropping the pigeons safely from aircraft, which I’m sure will come in handy soon.

Sarah says:

That’s right, Paul. You just never know.

Sylvia Liu says:

I loved reading about the undecipherable code when I saw it in the news. Thanks for this interesting post, and I’m glad I found this blog through the Mother Reader challenge. Will be bookmarking it!

Charlotte says:

I second Paul’s comment! But, knowing how bad I am at wrapping presents, I can just imagine the mess I’d get into, with my pigeon not cooperating, feathers everywhere, and my folds coming un-done….

I never know where I’ll end up during the Comment Challenge. This was absolutely fascinating, Sarah! My daughter will love it too. Thanks!

Dwight says:

Sarah – Your brother Luke pointed me to this. Great stuff! I did not know that pigeons were dropped from aircraft behind the lines – must have been dangerous to collect them in occupied France. We met long ago when Luke and I were sharing a house in DC. Thanks for the research and writing – this is history scholarship at its best.

Sarah says:

Thanks so much for commenting, Dwight. Glad you liked the post!

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