Remembrance 2019: Pigeons in War

Here in the UK and in many countries around the world, November is the month of remembrance, where we take time to honour and remember the sacrifices of the millions of people who have lost their lives in war.

Less well recognised are the millions of animals who gave their service as carriers, messengers, guards and companions; many losing their lives as a result. Especially forgotten are the lives of the hundreds of thousands of pigeons who served as messengers and their descendants, the street pigeons scratching a living on the street trying to avoid casual abuse or the ‘pest’ controllers. In this article, I hope to raise awareness of the service of these incredible birds, pay tribute to their bravery and determination and perhaps inspire a deeper respect for these wonderful creatures.

Early Use of Pigeons as Messengers

Pigeons were first domesticated thousands of years ago; raised by man as a source of food. During this time, we can only presume it came to man’s attention by accident that pigeons have a good memory for finding their way home. A good memory for directions is essential for the Rock Dove – ancestor of feral and domestic pigeons – a necessity likely borne out of their chosen habit of communal nesting on rocky coastal cliffs, where they must forage at some distance to find food. Wild Rock Doves however, generally forage within no more than 3-5 miles from their home, so the long distance homing abilities we have come to expect from today’s racing pigeons are as a direct result of man’s intervention: training and developing these innate abilities as a test of just how far their natural compass and endurance can take them. This is a process that has been many centuries in the making – the ancient Egyptians used pigeons to announce the coronation of a new Pharoah; the ancient Greeks the results of battles or of the Olympic Games and in the 12th century, the Persians had a regular pigeon service running between Baghdad and Syria. It is not difficult to see how the pigeon’s speed, endurance and homing abilities quickly became recognised as a valuable and important asset for war.

Pigeons in World War 1

The sheer scale of the war in Europe during 1914-1919 demanded efficient and reliable communications during a time when radio was very much in its infancy. An estimated 100,000 pigeons were used in WW1 and in the British forces by all three services: Army, Navy and the newly formed Air Force. On land, pigeons were transported in mobile pigeon lofts made from converted horse-drawn London buses, or carried with tank crews to relay information about troop and artillery movement. At sea they could relay messages about naval engagements back to headquarters on land and in the air, pigeons were carried with seaplane crews so that they could be released with coordinates informing rescuers of the crews location, should they have to ditch at sea.

War pigeons were also used by many other nations engaged the conflict. The most famous war pigeon hero of this time was the US war pigeon Cher Ami (‘Dear Friend’) a blue chequered hen who saved the ‘Lost Battalion’ of over 500 men from the 77th Division, trapped and incurring friendly fire in the Argonne. She successfully returned to her loft in time to stop the battalion from being bombed despite her injuries, which resulted in her losing a leg. She was awarded the french Croix de Guerre for her bravery.

Pigeons in World War 2

Following the successful use of pigeons in WW1, pigeons were once again used and more extensively in WW2. Approximately 250,000 pigeons were donated to the war effort by pigeon fanciers, or bred from donated birds by the National Pigeon Service. Pigeons were employed for a range of special tasks including aerial reconnaissance with small cameras (by 1940’s standards!) strapped to their bodies, taking photos from the air. They were also carried aboard aircraft to be released in the event of having to ditch at sea, with a number of aircrew saved in this way. Across occupied Europe, pigeons were carried by paratroopers in a ‘pigeon bra‘ to report successful landing, whilst others were airdropped in special containers with food in the hope that local people would use them to send intelligence back to Britain under ‘Operation Columba‘. Bletchley Park, home to the famous Enigma code breakers even had its own pigeon loft with birds bringing back Enigma-coded messages for the code breakers to crack.

In the USA under ‘Project Pigeon‘, scientists experimented with using pigeons as the guidance system in an early form of guided missile but the project was cancelled before the war ended, as it was not regarded as likely to bear fruit in time for active operational use.

The WW2 period saw the establishment of the Dickin Medal, a unique award created by Maria Dickin, who created the charity the Peoples Dispensary for Sick Animals (PDSA). To date the Dickin Medal has been awarded to 32 pigeons for their war service including: Winkie, who saved an aircrew ditched at sea; Royal Blue, bred at the Royal Lofts in Sandringham and Mary of Exeter who survived injury in multiple missions, and a bombing close to her home loft.

Life as a War Pigeon

Although the WW1/2 war pigeons had a good rate of success, their activities were extremely dangerous. The pigeons often had to fly at night and had to be specially trained to do so as pigeons do not normally fly in the dark and cannot see well at night. As they were often deployed from Britain to continental Europe, their flights took them over great distances (possibly hundreds of miles) of unfamiliar territory and across the sea which could be subject to rough weather including heavy rain, strong winds and fog. An exhausted pigeon flying from occupied France needed the greatest endurance in order not to perish at sea when crossing the English Channel back to Britain.

Weather and tiredness were not the only dangers. The pigeons would face gunfire from the enemy, and German-trained hawks stationed along the coast, waiting to strike pigeons already quite tired. Even some of the most famous and decorated war pigeons did not complete their service without sustaining injuries.

For Love of Family & Flock

With many dangers along the way, you might wonder why the pigeons chose to complete their journeys, despite all they faced. After all, there were safer options such as to join local flocks in the country where they were dropped, and not to try to return at all.

To truly appreciate the pigeons’ heroic efforts, it is important to understand what lies behind their incredible endurance and determination to return home. It is not food, or the promise of a warm loft but this: love. Pigeons mate for life and form strong bonds with their partners, sharing equal parenting responsibility. It was an essential part of being a successful war pigeon (and a racing pigeon today) to have a mate back home, to give the war pigeons the strongest motivation to return home, despite all the dangers they faced. As pigeons are social birds part of a flock, it is also possible that their sense of community and belonging to a group of familiar faces that also contributed to their determination.

Honoring the War Pigeons’ Service

As pigeons have no longer been used for war service in Britain since the 1950’s, many have forgotten or are not aware of the vital part that pigeons played in the World Wars. Today, their descendants the feral pigeons live a meagre existence under great persecution and receive little or no regard for the incredible efforts of their forbears. Monuments to war pigeons are few and far between, some notable exceptions being the WW1 monuments ‘Monument Au Pigeon Soldat‘ in Brussels, and the ‘Monument Au Pigeon Voyageurs‘ in Lille, France. The Animals in War Memorial in Hyde Park, London features a small flock in relief, along with other animals of war.

So this Remembrance Sunday, please spare a thought for the thousands of pigeons who served. Human lives were saved whilst many pigeons perished in our cause. They did not choose.

Lest we forget.

The Crazy Pigeon Lady, Nov 2019

Field Trip Report: Brussells, May 2019

In this Article I review the pigeon-related highlights from my recent trip to Brussells, Belgium.

Belgians love their pigeons. That much was apparent on our visit to Brussells on a sunny May weekend to the capital of Belgium; home of the modern incarnation of the sport of pigeon racing. In almost every square or open space within the city you can find a flock of feral pigeons, and almost always huddled excitedly around a substantial pile of bread, left by the generous human inhabitants.

If you are keen-eyed, you can spot amongst feral birds tall and small, scruffy and stately; a sleek athlete with dark eyes, white eye ring and 1 or 2 colourful bracelets on its ankles. These beauties are a bird quite apart from their humble street brethren: these are the Ultimate Rock Dove; the trained racing pigeon. Belgium is recognised as producing the world’s best racing birds, and many a fancier from across the world has paid top prices for pigeons of Belgian blood. None more so than the Chinese fancier who recently paid a record-breaking 1.25M Euros for ‘Armando’, a top class long-distance racer of Belgian stock in March 2019.

The sport of pigeon racing evolved from centuries of the use of pigeons as messengers in both peacetime and in war. The World Wars of the 20th Century saw hundreds of thousands of pigeons drafted into service at a time when communications technologies such as radio had not yet evolved enough to provide the fast, effective and reliable transmission of messages over long distances, that were essential to wartime activities. Pigeons proved themselves time and again to be fast, effective and reliable messengers, with their efforts saving many human lives.

Whilst the service of largely British pigeons in the Second World War has been well recognised by the advent of the Dickin Medal; the service of pigeons in the Great War has received less high-profile attention. The pigeon fanciers of Belgium clearly agreed: in the early 1930’s a committee was formed to petition for a monument to the service of war pigeons and their fanciers. They were successful, and the ‘Monument Au Pigeon Soldat‘ (Monument to the Pigeon Soldier) was inaugurated in March 1931.

Located at the end of the Place St-Catherine; the Monument is made of blue stone bedrock with granite pillars and a central statue cast in bronze; a collaboration between the sculptor Victor Voets (1882-1950) and Architect Georges Hano. The bronze statue of a woman represents ‘Motherland’, who holds a pigeon aloft on her outstretched hand, on a plinth bearing the word ‘The Pigeon Soldier’ in Belgian French and Flemish. At each side of the statue the inscriptions, also in both languages translate as: ‘To the Belgian Pigeon-Fanciers, who died for the Fatherland’. The monument is flanked on each side with granite pillars engraved with the years ‘1914’ and ‘1918’ respectively, both topped with a pair of pigeons with wings outstretched back to back, holding a soldier’s helmet aloft.

Ironically for a city monument, the statue is surprisingly free of pigeon dung; perhaps an act of respect by the local pigeons for their heroic ancestors. Their present-day feral cousins were close by however, relaxing on the grass of the nearby park in the afternoon sunshine, having enjoyed a refreshing rain shower earlier in the day. I stood and watched them for a long while just enjoying their antics: two tiny hens sunbathing shyly whilst a handsome cock-bird strutted around endlessly trying to impress the girls, whilst others jostled for the best spots in the sun. I could have watched them for hours! But it was time to move on.

Brussells is home to a plethora of street art, and virtually everywhere we went in the city there was something interesting or colourful to see. I was hoping that the city may be a home to a work by Belgian artist Adele Renault, famous for her huge pigeon murals, but sadly not! However, on our final day and entirely unexpectedly down a quiet street; we came across a work featuring our favourite feathered friends.

The work in spray paint by an unknown artist, depicts a flock of 6 feral pigeons airlifting a man in a high-vis jacket, who himself is desperately lifting an old damaged leather armchair, held by just 2 wires, where he himself is held aloft by six. There is no slogan or statement to hint at the artist’s intended meaning for this image, so the interpretation is down to you. Does the man represent the average worker being dragged from the comfort of the armchair, in some kind of call to action by the ‘common people’ (represented by the pigeons)? Or perhaps the man is not lifting the chair but chained down by it, kept down by the wealthy but crumbling ‘old boys club’ (represented by the chair)? Why not comment below with your thoughts on the meaning of this image – I’d love to hear your ideas!

The final day of our visit included a lovely walk through the Botanic Gardens, largely open to the public, where we found a bench in a nice shady spot next to a river where we were once again entertained by watching the antics of the local pigeons, who had just received a large bonanza of food, dropped by en elderly gentleman just as we arrived. The most intriguing of these birds was a handsome white cock bird, with a unique black and white striped tail which we got plenty of glimpses of as he strutted around the riverbank, trying to woo all the hens!

We finished our visit with a trip to see the European Parliament, which was a hive of activity that day, preparing to announce the results of the European elections. On our way to the Parliament, we passed a colourful monument to the motto of the European Union – ‘United in Diversity’ – a blue globe circled with the stars from the EU flag, held aloft by hands of different colours representing the different cultures and peoples of the EU, the globe crowned by a dove of peace. Which seems a fitting way to end this Article – thank you for reading!

By the Crazy Pigeon Lady

Interview with Kirsten Wilson – Artist Print Maker

In this Article I interview a fellow Columbiphile, Artist Printmaker Kirsten Wilson where I had the privilege to visit her in her studio in Essex, UK and talk about our shared passion for art and pigeons.

I first met Kirsten by chance when I visited the ‘Goodness’ art exhibition – a collaboration between Kirsten and fellow artist Liz Boast, at Parndon Mill gallery in Harlow, Essex – UK in March 2019. I had seen the exhibition advertised at my local rail station and it had drawn my attention because the poster included a wonderful image of an artwork featuring a loft of pigeons! I looked closer and noticed the Dickin Medal nestled amongst the nest boxes and smiled to myself – I had to see this wonderful picture in person!

I went to the exhibition on the very last day and made a beeline for the Dickin Medal pigeons picture, titled ‘MI-14 Pigeon Heroes’ – a drypoint print hand-coloured with watercolours by Kirsten Wilson. The image had been well researched, with all 32 medal-winning pigeons named and the medal itself accurately rendered with its striped ribbon. Accompanying the picture was some information about the war pigeons, and even a tiny canister which would once have been used to contain a message attached to a pigeon’s ankle.The picture had a distinctive sketchy style enhanced with subtle colours, and a signature stylistic touch of the pigeons eyes both being on the same side of the head, giving them a very characteristic look!

My enthusiasm for the piece had not gone un-noticed and soon I was introduced to the artist herself, who was at the gallery that day and as we talked I quickly realised that we had a shared passion for art and pigeons! We had a wonderful chat about the war pigeons, and some of Kirsten’s other pigeon-related work, such as the drypoint of pigeon ‘Ace’ (of which I am the proud owner of print no. 1!) and her linoprints of the Wood Pigeons. I was keen to find out more about Kirsten’s work and she kindly agreed to a studio visit and an interview for this Blog!

We met in Kirsten’s studio at the Pardon Mill; a beautiful light, bright room with a lovely printing press at the centre. All the surfaces and walls are adorned with fabulous lino prints and print collages of Kirsten’s distinctive Wood Pigeon flocks in works such as ‘Campies Wood’ and ‘Country Run’. Kirsten’s characteristic pigeons also grace the large drum shades of statement-piece table lamps and are even rendered on a tiny scale in silver on a finger ring, a product of Kirsten’s skills as a silversmith as well as a print maker. The MI-14 Pigeon Heroes were not forgotten: the framed original print proudly mounted on the wall, and another smaller drypoint piece ‘Roosting’ close by. It was wonderful to see my favourite birds so celebrated and admired in Kirsten’s fantastic work!

I asked Kirsten a few questions about being an artist, and what led her to want to make art about pigeons:

Please tell me a little about your self, how you became an artist and what you do?

My name is Kirsten Wilson and I studied Art at school, College at Ware, St Albans and Central St Martins in London in the 1980s and early 90s. I studied jewellery design and manufacture for my degree and have painted and drawn all of my life. I am extremely lucky to have a studio space at Parndon Mill in Harlow, Essex, just a few miles away from my home in the countryside near Sawbridgeworth in Hertfordshire. Being an artist is not something you can choose – I have to create something – I’d go mad!

What drew you towards printmaking as an artistic discipline?

I love printmaking; the process of making a plate and then experimenting with different paper, ink, surfaces and repetition. Many of the processes are similar to jewellery making and the tools and techniques I find I can use in both. I love the printing press and the tools – its very addictive! I have been printing for about 10 years and I still can’t wait to get into my studio!

When did you first become interested in pigeons, and what drew you to them?

When I was little, my bedroom was an attic room in quite a tall house. My window overlooked a large conifer tree that housed quite a few wood pigeons. Their call early in the morning when everywhere else is silent has stuck with me and I find very comforting. 

What inspired you to make artworks involving pigeons?

Living in the countryside next to farmland, I am aware that pigeons are sometimes seen as pests. My studio neighbour Liz Boast and I decided to put on an exhibition called “Vermin” attempting to show the positive and beautiful side of creatures that are sometimes seen as pests. The markings on pigeons are so varied that it lends its self to my prints, using the same or similar plate and adding ink to it in different ways to print an individual bird. Researching pigeons for this exhibition led me to discover Operation Columbus and the inspirational and heroic war pigeon story.

What is your favourite thing about pigeons?

Pigeons have a beautiful call, look fantastic and have the fascinating ability to find their way back home.

Pigeons are often maligned or overlooked by society – what sort of reaction/feedback have you had about your artworks of pigeons?

I always have a reaction, which is great. My reaction to pigeons is dissimilar to most people – I’ve never thought of them as ‘rats with wings’. Most people have a strong feeling for or against pigeons; MI-14 Pigeon Heroes got people talking and after they have heard the war pigeon story they hopefully soften towards them. I have only had one negative reaction from the daughter of a member of bomber command; upset that the pigeons received medals for bravery before they were properly acknowledged. 

Would you consider making art about other kinds of pigeons – maybe exotic pigeons?

I’ve just taken a little peek into the world of pigeons – I’m not ‘pigeonist’ I’d love to explore. I’m not ‘pigeoned-out’ yet! Birds and fish are big on my list to illustrate – I prefer to do things I’m passionate about.

Can you tell me about any upcoming events / exhibitions / projects you are working on involving your artworks of pigeons?

I am currently showing MI-14 Pigeon Heroes at the “Sea Pictures Gallery” at Clare in Suffolk. I am experimenting with pigeons on different surfaces and collage, and I hope to print some clothing!

My sincere thanks to Kirsten for welcoming me into her studio and speaking with me about her work!

Kirsten’s artwork is available for purchase via her Shop, or Email her for information about commissions. Follow Kirsten on Instagram, or meet her at Parndon Mill Open Studios on 20-21st July 2019. Kirsten’s work ‘MI-14 Pigeon Heroes’ is currently on display as part of the PRINTWORKS 10 exhibition at the Sea Pictures Gallery.

Field Trip Report: ‘Birdworld’

A report on my trip to ‘Birdworld’ bird and animal park in Holt Pound near Farnham, UK.

I confess, it was not the best time of the year to visit an outdoor animal attraction such as Birdworld. There had been heavy snow the day before and as we arrived, it was clear that the conditions for a visit were less than ideal with much of the car park 5 inches deep in snow, and a sign warning that some of the walk-through aviaries were closed due to icy conditions.

Still, we were there for my birthday and I was determined to see the birds and enjoy whatever could be seen on a cold but blessedly dry and sunny day. I was confident of an enjoyable visit, having seen the park a couple of times before, but it had been a few years since my last visit and my memory of the exhibits was a bit rusty!

Birdworld is home to over 2000 birds and other animals across 3 major zones – the Bird Park, Underwater World Aquarium and Jenny Wren Farm. A good whole day visit is needed to take in all three; so since we only had an afternoon and were there to see the pigeons and doves; we decided to focus on the Bird Park.

Birdworld boasts an impressive array of pigeon and dove species; more than we were able to see on the day due to the walk-through aviary closures and the cold conditions which understandably, resulted in some of the birds hiding away in their warm shelters.

The species on display include some of the rarest pigeon and dove species on the planet, such as the vulnerable Pink Pigeon of Mauritius and the Socorro Dove which is extinct in the wild. It is the efforts of zoos like Birdworld that perform very important ‘ex-situ’ conservation work to help rare birds; coordinating their breeding and conservation efforts through collaboration with other zoos and animal parks via organisations such as EAZA.

We well as the ‘official’ exhibits, the park also attracts many wild birds including 3 of the 5 British pigeon/dove species – the Wood Pigeon, Feral Pigeon and the Collared Dove; all of which we saw or heard on the day. You can even give them a morsel to eat if you choose – pots of mealworms can be purchased for £1 from the gift shop to feed any of the birds in the park.

All of the species we saw on the day had their own unique charm: a hen-pecked Wonga Pigeon husband; a grumpy Socorro Dove; Sleepy Luzon Bleeding Heart and the subtle beauty of the African Rock Doves, as common a sight in parts of Africa as the Feral Rock Pigeon is in British towns and cities.

If you love birds then Birdworld is good value for money and a must-visit, especially if like me, you like pigeons and doves. Next time I’ll be sure to visit in better weather and check out the walk-through aviaries!

Tips for a good visit:

  • Check the weather before you visit – warm, dry and sunny conditions are needed to see all the birds at their best
  • Allocate a whole day for your visit if you want to take in Jenny Wren Farm and Underwater World
  • On arrival, check out the times for the feeding and bird displays, where you can meet the keepers and see the birds in action
  • The best lunch is to be found in the Forest Lodge Garden Centre rather than the Birdworld cafe, this can be accessed from the Bird Park.
  • Take a good camera with a zoom to get some beautiful pictures!

by Jem, The Crazy Pigeon Lady

February 2019

Book Review: ‘The New York Pigeon: Behind the Feathers’

In this post I review the glossy photography book ‘The New York Pigeon: Behind the Feathers’ by editorial and fine art photographer Andrew Garn.

Lola stands ready for her glamour shoot – she’s hoping to be in the UK edition!

I first came across this book by chance when a link to this article in the Guardian online appeared in my Facebook feed. The article was adorned with a small but striking sample of images contained in the book and it was these that first captured my attention, and what spectacular images they certainly are! It didn’t take very long for the article and the brief taster of the amazing pictures to convince me to put the book straight on my Amazon wish list and hubby kindly obliged by purchasing it for me for Christmas!

Far away from the common perception of the feral pigeon as the shabby, dirty ‘rat with wings’; The New York Pigeon is no shabby book. It’s hardback cover, glossy black dust jacket and arresting front cover portrait of poster-boy ‘Dr Brown’ would not be out of place on the coffee table of any chic city apartment.

The book features a preface from the author, where his affection for the birds is clear in his warm and detailed descriptions that express a sense of wonder and admiration for these humble creatures; and his desire through the medium of photography, to literally present the pigeon in a new light: the photographic studio. The preface finishes with the hope that the book ‘will promote a more positive perspective and newfound appreciation for these beautiful, clever creatures’, and it is difficult to see how the hardest of hearts could not be impressed by the luscious pictures of the feathered subjects, and the stories behind them.

The photography throughout is simply stunning; with all of the birds photographed against a black background, allowing the studio lighting to fully illuminate the astonishing array of colours of bright and expressive eyes and the myriad of shimmering shades of purple, green, blue, gold and bronze scattered through the feathers; all rendered in high resolution and immaculate detail. As well as portraits of adult birds, there are also breathtaking images of the birds in flight; nestlings, x-rays showing the bone structure and images setting the birds in the more familiar context of the city landscape.

Perhaps the most surprising aspect of the book, was learning that the author’s relationship to the pigeons is more than just that of visual biographer. When not working as an experienced editorial and fine art photographer, Andrew Garn is an experienced rescuer and rehabber of injured pigeons, and all the portraits featured in the book are of birds which have been rescued and rehabilitated at the New York City wildlife rescue centre, the Wild Bird Fund. The back of the book features a group picture of some of the staff and work of the rescue centre, supported by an article by Rita McMahon, executive director of the charity.

The Wild Bird Fund is clearly a force for the good of pigeons. In 2017, the charity expected to treat around 6000 birds, of which around half would be pigeons. This in itself is an incredible fact, but all the more unusual because many veterinary surgeries and wildlife rescues will not treat feral pigeons, despite them being robust birds that often respond well to treatment, even for the most serious conditions. It is great to see that Andrew Garn’s work may not only help to banish prejudice and change perceptions of the humble feral pigeon, but that a portion of the sales of the book will also go to support the vital life-saving work of the the Wild Bird Fund.

In summary, ‘The New York Pigeon: Behind the Feathers’ is a beautifully affectionate and life-affirming celebration of the feral pigeon; and pays tribute to the love and dedication of those that are working to rescue and rehabilitate them. If you love pigeons then I know that you will love this book; but I do hope that it is picked up by those reserving judgement, and their hearts are touched by the beauty and majesty of these intelligent and engaging animals. I congratulate Andrew Garn on an outstanding work.

Jem – The Crazy Pigeon Lady