Monday, June 2, 2008

Homing Pigeons' Wartime Accomplishments Celebrated on Anniversary of WW1 Battle

Chicago Tribune

Homing pigeons' wartime accomplishments celebrated on anniversary of WWI battle
In Wheaton, enthusiasts tell of birds' role in WWI

By Gerry Smith
Tribune reporter

8:35 PM CDT, May 31, 2008

They're seen mostly as an urban nuisance, filthy birds who frequently defecate on the statues of war heroes, but pigeons still hold a special place in the hearts of veterans.

On Saturday, during the 90th anniversary of the Battle of Cantigny, the first U.S. victory of World War I, homing pigeons were celebrated at Cantigny Park in Wheaton for their pivotal role in protecting soldiers during the war.

As a breeder released homing pigeons into the sky, visitors observed exhibits highlighting the birds' valor in the line of duty.

During wartime, some pigeons were fitted with cameras to take photographs of enemy positions. Their most important role was as messengers, carrying notes that were neatly folded into small canisters attached to their legs.

During World War I, before the two-way radio, field commanders carried carrier pigeons to communicate. The pigeons would instinctively fly back to their home and deliver messages to military planners.

"Some of those birds had to fly across the English Channel," said Bill Mitiu, 56, a member of the Greater Chicago Combine, a group of homing pigeon-keepers.

Perhaps the most famous of the World War I carrier pigeons was named Cher Ami. The bird was credited with saving the lives of about 200 American soldiers in the 77th Infantry Division by delivering messages across enemy lines.

Recent scientific research has found that pigeons are able to navigate hundreds of miles based on smell, disproving prior theories that they used Earth's magnetic field to find their way home.

On Saturday, Mitiu released several pigeons. Some flew from the park in Wheaton to Mitiu's coop in Brookfield, a 20-mile journey that takes them about 20 minutes.

Today, homing pigeons are typically used for racing and sometimes referred to as "race horses of the sky." They are bred in backyard coops and wear a band on each leg—one with an ID number, the other with a computer chip that registers when they cross the finish line.

"They're amazing little athletes," Mitiu said.

But they have an image problem. In response to complaints about feathers and droppings around local coops, the Chicago City Council in 2004 banned raising pigeons in residential areas, making Chicago the largest city in the nation to enact such an ordinance.

The birds receive more respect in Europe, Mitiu said, where residents of some countries still remember the role of pigeons on the battlefield. For example, there are an estimated 60,000 pigeon enthusiasts in Belgium, a nation of 10 million people.

"These birds helped save their lives during wars, and they respect that and recognize that," Mitiu said.

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