The Clerk in the Country

Friday 22nd January 2021

Pigeons at work

Sunny days now are greeted by the welcome sight and sound of birds, but under last week’s snow-laden sky there wasn’t a sign of life.  After a few minutes of gazing at empty greyness I saw a single stocky figure emerge from a tree and fly in a steady circle.  Pigeons are not always the most loved birds, seen as too prolific in towns and an agricultural pest in the countryside, but they are one of the strongest fliers, with powerful breast muscles which have made them a useful food source over the centuries, whether shot as game or reared in the farmyard, and they are surprisingly agile in the air.  I once saw one make a vertical take-off from a narrow gap between two cars about to move off on George Hudson Street. It hauled itself into the air in the tightest of spirals, in the kind of manoeuvre that might save it from a predatory hawk.

Their uncanny homing instinct is of course what sets pigeons apart from our other domesticated creatures and makes breeding and racing them a passionate hobby, and sometimes much more.  Of the 54 Dickin medals awarded to animals for “conspicuous gallantry or devotion to duty while serving or associated with any branch of the Armed Forces or Civil Defence Units” between 1943 and 1949, 18 were given to dogs, but no fewer than 32 to pigeons. One recipient, Kenley Lass, was the first bird to bring home news from an agent in occupied France.  After being parachuted into the country with him, she flew some 300 miles in less than seven hours.

The Dickin medal was introduced too late to honour individual birds from the First World War which saw many pigeon heroes.  The famous Cher Ami, despite being shot in the chest, flew 25 miles and saved the lives of 194 stranded American soldiers in 1918.  Early tanks had no radios and carried pigeons as their only means of communication, as did many planes.  In 1917 one such was patrolling over the North Sea when its engine failed.  Its crew of two was spotted and rescued by a passing flying boat but this itself was already carrying four men.  The weight of six made take-off impossible and put the plane in danger of sinking.  All they could do was release their four pigeons, keep bailing out the water, and hope.  In the harsh conditions of a long flight over rough seas none of the birds made it home, but one got far enough.  Three days later the body of Pigeon NURP/17/F.16331 was found on a beach, with his message canister intact.  All six men were rescued.

Unaware of the heroism of its forebears but perhaps showing some of the same fortitude, my pigeon neighbour toured its desolate domain before settling back into its tree.