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Earliest Flying messengers September 17, 2012

Author: Beach Combing | in : Ancient, Contemporary, Medieval , trackback

Beachcombing has a few bizarre carrier pigeon stories in a mauve file under the staircase: I mean are pigeon stories ever going to be normal? He thought though that he’d start his pigeon campaign with a simple even tedious question. When were pigeons first used as messengers? Their role carrying messages in the two world wars is well known: there is a memorable Blackadder scene where the hero is sentenced to death for shooting and eating his general’s pet pigeon, Speckled Jim. (British sense of humour warning). The use of carrier pigeon’s in the siege of Paris in 1870 is also celebrated: the Germans employed hawks to bring them down. But how much further back into the past can we go? After all, training a homing pigeon to carry a message should have been possible once homo sapiens had learnt to domesticate animals: particularly if messages were symbolic rather than written.

Yet Beach has struggled to get back that far. In fact, for a while the earliest European reference he could find came in a crusader text.

The envoys from the Emir of Azaz, Omar, to Godfrey of Bouillon at Antioch were very joyful and happy with Godfrey’s promise of help in rebelling against their overlord, Ridwan, hostile to the Franks. Without delay they took from their garments two pigeons, nice tame birds which they had brought with them. They wrote Duke Godfrey’s replies on paper, tied them to the birds’ tails with threads, and sent them forth from their hands to carry the good news.

 ‘Godfrey and everyone who was with him wondered at this sending out of birds’. This suggests that whether or not the sending of birds was common in the Arab world it had certainly not reached Europe in the late eleventh century. Is it possible to go earlier? Beach managed to find a reference in the Roman military writer Frontinus who claims that:

Hirtius also shut up pigeons in the dark, starved them, fastened letters to their necks by a hair, and then released them as near to the city walls as he could. The birds, eager for light and food, sought the highest buildings and were received by Brutus, who in that way was informed of everything, especially after he set food in certain spots and taught the pigeons to alight there.

It is not then that Europeans had never had the art of pigeon sending, it is rather that this art had been lost? Note that Pliny in book ten also has some passages on carrier pigeons that probably formed Frontinus’s source.

There are allegedly earlier references. Pigeons were supposed to have been used in the early Olympic games to bring news of the victor: but the dates are difficult to believe and Beach has been unable to find any source here. (Note that the modern olympics has created myths and cobblers in other areas). Likewise the internet is full of claims that the Ancient Egyptians used pigeons to carry messages, which would drag us back to the beginning of writing in the Mediterranean. But no good source or image has turned up for Beach. It would certainly make sense for homing pigeons to begin in the great empires of the near east where birds with messages would keep various parts of territories in touch with each other. But where is the proof? drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com

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30 Sept 2012: The Count on pigeons: Interesting post regarding carrier pigeons in antiquity, but I think you may be missing a few points. Firstly, it would be very difficult for people to come up with the idea of using pigeons as long-distance messengers in the first place because it isn’t intuitively obvious that this would work unless you know about bird migration, which medieval Europeans didn’t – they accounted for the absence of swallows in Winter by assuming that they hibernated in the mud at the bottom of ponds, and put the strange absence of barnacle goose nesting sites down to, not the seemingly obvious hypothesis that they nested in the same manner as every other species of bird, only a long way away, but the utterly bonkers theory that they began life as barnacles! The basis for this belief was that a certain type of large stalked barnacle with most of its fleshy parts visible looks a little bit as though it might just possibly be a half-formed goose embryo. Obviously, if any tradition of scientific experimentation had existed, they could have disproved ideas like this very quickly, but it didn’t. So even though dovecotes were a common accessory to the larger houses, the only way that anyone might discover the homing ability of pigeons would be if the lord of the manor sold a number of doves to somebody else who lived a fair distance away, one of which had such distinctive plumage that when it returned, it was obviously the same one. And even then, since as noted the medieval mindset didn’t have any concept of what we would call the scientific method, it simply wouldn’t occur to them to conduct experiments such as painting numbers on lots of pigeons and letting them loose progressively further from home. In all likelihood, the miraculous return of that one special bird would be seen as just that – a miracle, or at least a prodigy. They might try to derive some sort of portent from it. But they certainly wouldn’t assume that if one bird can do this, other birds, or at any rate, other birds of the same species, can probably do it as well. Medieval Arabs, on the other hand, were somewhat more inclined to use this kind of reasoning. Their exceptional grasp of astronomy had the practical purpose of allowing them to navigate without compasses, for which reason it was important that any theories they came up with precisely matched what the Heavens actually did. Some of them were even able to navigate by the stars in the daytime! What they did was to memorize the entire night sky, keep track of where Venus currently was, and train themselves to find it in daylight, which you just about can if you have exceptional eyesight abd you know roughly where to look. I don’t know how clued up they were regarding ornithology, but they sound to me like the kind of people who would be capable of observing the regular seasonal migration of birds and drawing the most logical conclusion. I’m not sure either to what extent Arabs went in for having dovecotes as sources of meat and eggs, but since Arabic poetry frequently mentions doves as rather attractive and pleasant birds somehow tied in with love, I assume that even if they served no practical purpose, some rich Arabs would have kept doves on their estates just because they were pretty. All of which implies that they would have had exactly the same opportunities to fortuitously discover the homing properties of pigeons as Europeans did, but thanks to their different mindset, would probably have done so much sooner. And this does indeed seem to be the case. I would also submit that Frontinus’ account does not in fact suggest that the use of homing pigeons to carry messages was a “lost art” in Europe. Hirtius obviously doesn’t know the crucial fact about homing pigeons – that they will travel to one particular location from a long way away. And even if he did, that method wouldn’t have worked in this case, unless Brutus had supplied him in advance with enough pigeons to keep him informed throughout the siege. Hirtius is simply using an intuitively obvious method derived from his astute observations of the behavior of almost any type of bird. He’s clearly a clever man, but he hasn’t a clue about the pigeon post. Thanks Count!