Down the Pigeon Hole: Part Two
From Saving Lives to Outsmarting Surveillance States - Pigeons as a Force for Cultural Change
On a more serious note, from antiquity to as recently as the 1950s, some of history's most powerful nations have deployed homing pigeons during military campaigns. These war pigeons carried strategic military transmissions that could turn the tide of battle and change the fortunes of entire nations. For example, according to Pliny the Elder, Marcus Junius Brutus supposedly used war pigeons to circumvent Mark Antony during the Seige of Mutina.
'Decimus Brutus, who was in the town, sent despatches to the camp of the consuls fastened to pigeons' feet. Of what use to Antony then were his intrenchments, and all the vigilance of the besieging army? his nets, too, which he had spread in the river, while the messenger of the besieged was cleaving the air?' - Natural History, Book 10, Chapter 53.
Nevertheless, despite their evident aptitude, domestic pigeons have become another in a long line of once marvellous innovations made obsolete by modern technologies. Does simply labelling our old toys as feral seem fair? Or are pigeons like all things retro that humanity has unceremoniously tossed on the scrap pile only to pick back up again? Pigeons are no less remarkable now than the radios that first replaced them.
Considering the potential wrapped up in those inauspicious little bodies, it's shameful that pigeons now subsist on our streets, entirely ignored, trailing only inconvenience and ill-repute in their wake. And when I say our streets, I don't just mean we as humans. I'm referring to the society we share with pigeons.
Despite the counterproductive culling routines, which are standard practice for most city councils, humans have shared their social evolution with pigeons to the same degree as cats and dogs. True, pigeons are already symbolic of modern society, but only because we project the most damaging aspects of our filthy lifestyles and squalid cities onto birds essentially preadapted to our waste. Pigeons and humanity are inseparable.
Make no mistake; we do share our cities with these birds. Indeed, our sloped window sills, constant cleaning programs, spiked signage and electrified facades demonstrate how pigeons have shaped modern architecture and urban life. Of course, pigeons pose many problems for themselves and society. Chief among them is that our ailing cities are as detrimental to pigeons as they are to us.
As mentioned above, everything we do to hinder pigeons only exacerbates our shared issues. This is nothing new. In the 14th century, people commonly threw stones to discourage feral pigeons, regardless of the surrounding infrastructure. This prompted the exasperated Bishop of St Paul's, Robert Braybrooke, to threaten anyone caught smashing the cathedral's windows in this way with excommunication.
'[B]y the instigation of the Devil [using] stones and arrows to bring down the birds, jackdaws and pigeons which nestle in the walls and crevices of the building... breaking the beautiful and costly painted windows to the amazement of spectators.' - Lond. Epis. Reg. Braybrook, fol. 330.
Nowadays, while our culling programs are supposedly more sophisticated (poisoning, shooting, trapping), these initiatives merely produce a population gap, which immigrating pigeons exploit enthusiastically. Moreover, while these aggressive control programs do briefly sweep pigeons from the streets, high-fertility rates and reduced competition allow the survivors to reach maturity stronger and more virile than ever, thus restocking the population.
When left unchecked, Pigeons cause immense damage to our cities while serving as vectors for disease. Therefore, one would certainly not suggest we simply let their populations explode. Not only would we find ourselves virtually outcompeted, but such a policy would also be disastrous for the pigeons. Conservative estimates put the global pigeon population at roughly 400 million and predicted to rise alongside urban expansion.
Once again, we find ourselves to blame. As discussed, our cities are well-suited to pigeons, but this is especially true when said cities are rife with short-term solutions and underfunded public infrastructure. The ensuing pollution and habitat reduction causes predators to migrate or vanish, destabilising the region's ecology. Subsequently, residents become desperate to reconnect with nature and form attachments to the remaining wildlife. At the same time, neglected investment properties and underfunded public spaces provide free real estate for the optimistic scavengers flourishing in our filth.
However, while these conditions may seem favourable, they press pigeons into densely populated and unhygienic roosts. This creates a paradoxical combination of excess and undersupply, leading to fatal competition and immense stress, which invites infestations, parasites and diseases.
Does any of this sound familiar? How can we blame pigeons for embodying the same resilient yet harried lifestyles to which we condemn our most disenfranchised and unfortunate fellow humans? Who, then, is to blame for the state of our cities? Or would it be better to ask who is to blame for the state of our pigeons? Why is it so unlikely, laughable even, to suggest that pigeons should experience a renaissance as emblematic champions of the downtrodden?
Sadly, Joe the Pigeons' fleeting fame ultimately failed to turn this cultural tide. Still, pigeons deserve a level of celebrity (or at least controversy) akin to the Australian White Ibis. But because pigeons are such quiet achievers and comparatively tame lookers, they require a more subtle social media shift to skew their current image problems.
Now, I may raise some eyebrows here, but I firmly believe that the following hypotheticals are technically feasible and entirely possible.
One of the first things authoritarian regimes do upon seizing power is to consolidate their rule by strangling digital communications, thus suppressing any chance of organised rebellion. Since social media facilitated the Arab Spring uprisings and its role in elevating political movements across the spectrum, our leaders have devised nefarious ways to scrutinise and strangle our digital communications. While some countries are considerably more aggressive than others, this presents an extremely tricky obstacle for prospective dissidents to overcome. Especially given how some governments throttle internet connections in high-risk areas, disrupting otherwise coordinated protests. These days, political movements are more likely to fail in silence than in a splendid blaze of public glory. But how does this relate to pigeons? I would argue (at considerable and hysterical length) that pigeons could rise through the ranks of popular culture by serving as a solution to these problems.
Rather than combating surveillance states by subverting incredibly complex cybersecurity systems, dissidents could blindside repressive regimes by using pigeons for both communications and recognisance. Now, wrangle your eyebrows and give me a chance to explain.
Pigeons are beyond ubiquitous in virtually every urban environment on Earth. This makes them a perfect smokescreen for anyone looking to keep their communications from view, particularly in urban sprawls or densely populated cities. Homing pigeons, as discussed, are tried and tested in these areas. During the Franco-Prussian war, besieged Parisians used a combination of microfilm, cyphers and homing pigeons to communicate with the outside world. This achievement was recognised in a monument at the Porte des Ternes in Paris, unveiled on 28th January 1906, though later destroyed by Nazis in 1944.
Moreover, given that modern conquest is more suited to espionage rather than outright violence, pigeons could serve the increasingly shadowy needs of resistance movements. Pigeons are considerably less conspicuous than drones, affordable, and with some simple harnesses and rigging, they could spend days hovering unnoticed around otherwise classified sites, streaming their findings worldwide. Considering how closely associated doves are with peace, it seems logical that Columba livia domestica should share the stage in this markedly less glamorous age. Perhaps we will one day witness the unveiling of a commemorative monument to pigeons outside President Alexander Lukashenko's so-called Palace of Independence in Minsk.
But pigeons need not only serve dissidents looking to overthrow or sidestep repression; those wishing to maintain the peace may find them equally useful. Many open democracies are precariously reliant on digital communications. Indeed, the stability of these societies essentially hinges on their ability to communicate over large distances as quickly and inexpensively as possible. What would happen if some unforeseen calamity - of which there are many possibilities, ranging from manmade to natural to cosmic - suddenly rendered our communication centres useless? While some of these events are rare to unlikely, many are increasingly common. Due to increased economic strain, environmental changes and population growth (sound familiar?), power outages and unstable internet connections already plague developed nations. Likewise, developing nations must contend with inferior and often non-existent infrastructure. Simultaneously, the ever-present threat of cyber-attacks has governments and private citizens funnelling billions into preventative measures or directly into the hacker's pockets. Moreover, the unforeseeable yet inevitable effects of climate change will not only have profound effects on our global communication networks but will likely isolate and silence remote communities.
I will refrain from suggesting pigeons as a viable alternative to smartphones. But I will argue that pigeons are a suitable last line of defence should the not-so-unthinkable take place. By funding simple breeding and training programs, governments gain a firm foothold over their networks while risking little beyond derision, as evidenced by the effectiveness, efficiency and affordability of pigeons in both World Wars. Indeed, even today, some of the world's most powerful countries actively cultivate homing pigeons as an insurance policy. For example, the Chinese People's Liberation Army boasts a 10000-strong 'reserve pigeon army'.
"These military pigeons will be primarily called upon to conduct special military missions between troops stationed at our land borders or ocean borders." - China Central Television, Chinese military expert Chen Hong.
Incidentally (and perhaps coincidentally), The Indian Defence Review later reported that several homing pigeons with Chinese markings were captured near the strategically located Anjaw district, just south of the Tibetan border. This is not an isolated incident. Locals from Indian border towns routinely report catching pigeons with Chinese markings. Of course, while not all these sightings are of concern or even legitimate, a Niti village local recently delivered a captured pigeon, supposedly wearing a harnessed micro-camera, to an Indian army checkpoint. The Indian Army issued no official statement in response.
Regardless of the sensational nature of these stories, they illustrate that pigeons are, in some small way, recapturing our imagination. Whether ushering in a nostalgic era of espionage or keeping us connected in what would otherwise be the darkest days, pigeons are primed for a comeback.
But pigeons still have one major obstacle before returning home to roost. Despite being one of the most influential psychologists of the 21st century and a premier pigeon researcher, B.F. Skinner conceded: 'Our problem was no one would take us seriously.' Sadly, this still appears to be the consensus. Regardless of their numerous abilities, potential future uses, fascinating physiology, political intrigue and historical significance, everyone assumes that those pesky gutter rats are nothing beyond a grotesque nuisance, barely worth passing attention, let alone long-term initiatives. Therefore, if the stray contagion that usually infects a viral sensation doesn't catch in the case of pigeons, only a concerted effort to explore their history and future potential will cause popular culture to reembrace this creature that has only recently strayed from view.
Pigeons are far more useful to our societies and intertwined with our identity than many other creatures elevated by memes and marketing. Joe the Pigeon is a positive indication, and China's ongoing pigeon conspiracy is another. Still, both affairs ultimately amount to little more than a cynical sideshow, achieving nothing of lasting significance. Pigeons are splendidly undervalued and adaptable creatures that are unfortunately suited to the adverse conditions humanity creates.
True, there are plenty of reasons pigeons cause concern, and I doubt they will ever become an overnight sensation. But these days, as many influencers and world leaders have discovered, controversy trumps obscurity.
Finally, put aside Joe the Pigeon (if you haven't already) and spare a moment for Cher Ami, a sensational carrier pigeon and World War One veteran, widely considered one of the conflict's greatest heroes. Cher Ami received these honours after saving hundreds of lives across twelve daring missions. Most notably in Charlevaux, France, where Cher Ami's successful flight saved the encircled members of the US 77th Division, colloquially known as The Lost Battalion.
Surrounded by German forces and sustaining heavy fire from friendly artillery, Major Charles Whittlesey desperately attached the below message to Cher Ami, the division's sole surviving messenger pigeon and last hope.
'WE ARE ALONG THE ROAD PARALELL [sic] 276.4. OUR ARTILLERY IS DROPPING A BARRAGE DIRECTLY ON US. FOR HEAVENS [sic] SAKE STOP IT.'
Cher Ami flew at record speeds to deliver Major Whittlesey's plea, saving 194 souls, despite being grievously wounded soon after takeoff. Cher Ami was awarded the Croix de Guerre for his bravery, but ultimately lost his leg, eyesight and died from his wounds six months later.
How did we repay Cher Ami for his service? He became a propaganda piece for a few years, then wound up stuffed and on display at the Smithsonian Museum, where he still resides as a passing curiosity.
Cher Ami shone through some of humanity's darkest days, yet his heroic deeds and those of many other pigeons are largely forgotten. He and his kin deserve not only our notice but also our undying respect and admiration. Pigeons are more than just pesky gutter rats. They are our friends, our victims and our allies on this strange journey through existence. We should recognise them accordingly.
Dedicated to Cher Ami, pigeon, 1918-1919, lest we forget.
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