Note:  Do not rely on this information. It is very old.

Carrier Pigeon

Carrier Pigeon, a name used in two distinct senses: (1) a fancy variety of pigeon, which has long lost whatever "carrying" properties it once possessed, and which is now only bred for show purposes; and (2) the homing pigeon, descended from the Belgian pigeon voyageur, which is trained to find its way home when liberated at a long distance therefrom.

The fancy breed of Carriers originated in the East, and probably descended from the Persian messenger pigeon, to which, or to a closely-allied breed, the allusions in classic and mediaeval literature probably refer. A breed of pigeons was used to carry letters during the Crusades, and mention of the employment of these birds for a similar purpose in Syria and the neighbouring countries will be found in Sir John Mandeville's Voyages and Travels (ch. x.). According to Moore, the author of the Columbarium (1735), the first general account of pigeons in the English language, the Dutch introduced these carriers into Europe. The fancy English Carrier is rather larger than the domestic pigeon, with a long body and neck, and a long bill, of which the upper mandible shuts over the lower like the lid of a box. But its peculiar points are the wattles on the bill, and the fleshy rosette, which should be of the size of a shilling, round the eye. The wattles ought to be quite distinct from the rosette, soft in texture, and standing out like the surface of a cauliflower; and the part on the upper mandible should be met by a corresponding one (sometimes called the jewing) on the lower. The plumage should be thick, and closely adpressed to the body. The favourite colours are deep black, dark dun, bright blue with black bars on the wings and tails, or pure white.

The bird now used occasionally as a messenger, but more generally for flying-matches, is of a composite breed, and is known as a "homer" or "homing pigeon." It should be noted that the name "carrier pigeon" is misleading. A writer in the Field remarked some years ago: - "A pigeon will fly homewards when set at liberty, and by its means a message can, therefore, be sent from a given spot to the bird's home. But no pigeon ever did or ever will carry a message from home to any other spot." In appearance the homer differs little from the domestic pigeon, but is heavier and more stoutly built, and has a larger head with a fuller development of brain. Before railways and the telegraph had made communication rapid and easy, pigeons were often used in Great Britain to transmit news. In the eighteenth century they were sent up from Tyburn to announce the execution of a felon, and till beyond the middle of the nineteenth century they were used to bring intelligence of races, etc., to newspaper offices, and of the state of foreign exchange to brokers and stock-jobbers in London. These birds were either of the Antwerp breed, or had a good strain of the Antwerp blood. But it is in connection with the siege of Paris that homing pigeons are best known to the general public, owing to the establishment of what has been called the "pigeon-post." During the siege sixty-four balloons belonging to the French crossed the Prussian lines, carrying with them 360 homing pigeons. Of that number 302 were afterwards sent back to Paris, and, despite the efforts of the enemy to destroy them, 98 birds returned to their cots, 75 of them carrying microscopic messages rolled up tightly, placed in a quill, and tied longitudinally to the central tail feathers. Thus there were carried into the capital 150,000 official despatches, and a million private ones, which had been reduced by the photo-micrographic process.

According to Dr. Chapuis, long-distance pigeon-flying, as a form of sport, originated in Belgium - still its metropolis - in 1818. Since then it has spread to England, France, Germany, and Italy, in all which countries clubs have been established to promote the pursuit. The highest speed on record, as given by Mr. Tegetmeier, on the authority of Dr. Chapuis, is 1,780 yards - or rather over a mile - a minute. But in the report of an English club, published in October, 1891, nothing like this rate is mentioned.

The first race was from Exeter, the winning bird covered the distance (116 miles) at a velocity of 1,219 yards per minute. 119 birds were liberated for this race, about two-thirds being reported home.

The second race was from Plymouth, when the winning bird covered the distance (173 miles) at a velocity of 823 yards per minute. 103 birds competed, about half being reported home.

The third race was from Penzance (205 miles); the winning bird made a velocity of 672 yards per minute. 67 birds, only one-third reported home.

The fourth race was from St. Mary's Island, Sciliy (245 miles); the winning bird made a velocity of 908 yards per minute. 27 birds reported home out of 36.

In the extracts given above it will be noticed that in the third race only one-third of the birds liberated returned home, and in no case did all return. This is very important, as showing how little instinct has to do with the flight of homing birds. Mr. Tegetmeier has pronounced against instinct and in favour of training; and he says: - "Pigeons must be regularly trained by stages, or they will be inevitably lost if flown one hundred or two hundred miles from home." Older observers were of the same opinion. Sir John Mandeville (see above) says that "the pigeons are so taught that they fly with those letters to the very place that men would send them to. For they are fed in those places where they are sent to, and they naturally return to where they have been fed." And Moore, in his Columbarium, after describing the Carrier, adds: "N.B. - If the pigeons be not practised when young, the best of them will fly but very indifferently, and may possibly be lost."