Written by Victoria Green.
Pigeons get a pretty rough deal, let’s be honest. The common perception of the pigeon is that they are ‘sky-rats’, pests. They menace the streets, try to steal your chips, and always seem to fly at your face. They’re perhaps not the prettiest of birds, more of a nuisance than anything else.
This perception, however, could not be more wrong. Pigeons can be trained into highly intelligent, prized birds. Carrier pigeons play important roles in communication and medicine, flying on both missions of war and peace. They were an essential military support during times when communication lines were either unavailable, unreliable, or unsafe. Maybe not every street-pigeon wandering around your local town centre is capable of the same high pedigree, but pigeons used to be a valuable asset. Some remain so to this day.
Carrier pigeons played integral roles in the war effort, during both WWI and WWII. Homing pigeons were used extensively in France during WWI to deliver messages between pigeon lofts. Several of these pigeons were decorated post-war for their efforts. Cher Ami was posthumously awarded the ‘Croix de Guerre’ for delivering a crucial message at the Battle of Verdun and saving the lives of 194 US soldiers. This tried and tested system of carrier pigeons continued into WWII, with all Allied forces using birds to deliver their messages. The UK military alone deployed some 250,000 pigeons to communicate with those behind enemy lines. It wasn’t until 1948 that the pigeon section was disbanded within the UK.
Below is a picture of a pigeon in a ‘bra’, the term colloquially used to describe the harnesses worn by pigeons. Vests like these were designed and manufactured for the US military by brassiere company, Maidenform. The harnesses were intended for pigeons carried by US paratroopers. The pigeon’s wings were secured, with the head, neck, wingtips, tail and feet exposed. The vest was especially designed to protect the pigeon as it parachuted through the air whilst strapped to a paratrooper’s jacket. Once the paratrooper landed behind enemy lines, the pigeon would be released to deliver its message.
Pigeons have since been used for all manner of projects and, controversially, surveillance operations. Some examples include search and rescue, transportation of film negatives, airborne cameras and, most recently, monitoring air pollution in London.
So, the strategic and practical worth of pigeons has long been recognised, but did you know that pigeons have also been used to carry blood samples between hospitals?
The picture above is of a pigeon harness. Fashioned from thin strips of leather, the harness incorporates a holder for a small vial. This harness was intended to carry blood samples between hospitals, holding the tube securely to the pigeon’s back, between the wings. The thinking behind this was simple; pigeons are faster than cars stuck in traffic.
Plymouth hospital trialled this idea, correctly thinking that it would reduce sample delivery times in busy, industrial areas.
Footage from BBC Archives.
Even though the experimentation of Plymouth’s hospitals never resulted in a breakthrough new sample delivery system, pigeons flew blood samples in the area until the 1980s. Though not commonplace, the pigeon delivery system is still used to transport blood samples in some remote parts of Britain and France.
Until recently, a central blood testing centre at Avranches Hospital laboratory in Cotentin, France, used pigeons to carry samples. Cotentin is a popular tourist destination in the summer months, and the roads can become very congested. A pigeon, however, can fly the 27km from Avranches to Granville in 11 – 20 minutes, depending on the wind speed and direction. Not only are pigeons efficient deliverymen, they are also cheaper for the hospital; pigeons save Avranches around $46 per day on gas and vehicle maintenance.
So let us not underestimate the incredible bird that is the humble pigeon! Perhaps we will rely on them again one day.
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