My friend and colleague, Katie Wikoff, recently posted a blog “Of dovecotes and pigeonholes and ortolans and extinction” which got me thinking once again about how communication has changed in the last 100 years. Today, we can pull out our cell and be connected in a matter of seconds with people all over the world, and when the signal doesn’t go through, we are not just disappointed and frustrated, but we curse the unit in our hand and begin to search for a better carrier. I have run across quite a few references in Woodstock’s main paper to the use of carrier or homing pigeons as a “quick” way to get a message sent. Sending a message by pigeon was equivalent to texting today. “I’ll be home by six,” the message might say. Or “Watch out for black ice in Fond du Lac County!” Or “I need help, now!” However, back in the day, carrier or homing pigeons were not only used as tools of communication, but they were part of the social fabric of the day. Everyone knew someone who kept pigeons. The following are a few of the articles published in The Woodstock Sentinel (Woodstock, IL) between 1881 and 1910 about…you guessed it…pigeons.
The Woodstock Sentinel (September 25, 1881)
Friar’s Omelet – Stew six or seven good-sized apples as for apple-sauce; stir in when cooked and still warm, butter the size of a pigeon’s egg and one cupful of sugar; when cold stir in three well-beaten eggs and a little lemon-juice. Now put in a small piece of butter into a pan, and when hot throw in a cupful of bread crumbs; stir them over the fire until they assume a light brown color. Butter a mold and sprinkle crumbs on the bottom and sides, fill with apple preparation; sprinkle top with bread-crumbs; bake it for fifteen or twenty minutes and turn it out on a good-sized platter. It can be eaten with or without sweet sauce.
Beyond the use of pigeon eggs as good measure, homing pigeons were used by many industries as in both normal and desperate times.
The Woodstock Sentinel (November 10, 1881)
A number of homing pigeons were recently purchased in this city for shipment to Newfoundland, where they are used extensively by the fishermen of the coast. On going out at night each company of fishermen takes aboard it’s “smack” several homing pigeons. When they reach the fishing grounds, in the morning, a bird bears to the little port from which it comes the news of the night and the prospects for the day. Later on, when the vessel is ready to return, a bird is sent with an account of the catch and those at the fishing hamlet know just what preparations to make for taking care of the fish which will be brought in. A pigeon telegraph service has been established on the Saugeen Peninsula, in the western part of Ontario, Canada. The only telegraph office in the vicinity is at Weirtown, but all over the surrounding country are pigeon stations from which birds can be dispatched to the telegraph with messages which are then forwarded by wire. A physician in Hamilton County, having a practice extending over a large territory, employs homing pigeons extensively. He takes a basket in his carriage when he starts out in the morning, in which are several birds, and liberates them when it is necessary to communicate with his office. He also leaves pigeons among his more distant patients, so that upon occasion arising he can be at once summoned – N. Y. Tribune.
Pigeons were seen as a money-making proposition being kept, bred and raced by farmers and “fanciers.” Of course, setting up a coop wasn’t simple and must be a comfort to the birds so they will come back. This doesn’t necessary a comfy nest, but it does mean a pigeonhole for each bird and several areas so that new birds can be held back from freedom for a period of time. The males and females need to be separated from each other at times. The birds with babies need nesting areas and protection from the other older birds. And then there is the training…well, you get the drift. Of course, pigeon husbandry is not new news.
The Woodstock Sentinel (November 26, 1885)
On a bet of $150, three carrier pigeons were turned loose at St. Louis on the 17th for Crystal City, to make thirty miles in half an hour. The first bird was two minutes late.
The Woodstock Sentinel (November 2, 1899) Squab Breeding
In recent years squabs are considered such an appetizing dish that they are added to the bill-of-fare of all first class hotels, although they are not always mentioned as squabs, being too often served up to their customers as quail, writes G. A. Bell in the Poultry Tribune. The breeding of squabs for market can be conducted by farmers or by the gentler sex, and made a source of great profit, provided it is handled properly. First consider the loft – an old barn will do if all the cracks are stopped up and nest boxes put in. Second, the breeding stock, which is an important item. No bird has been found to answer this purpose as well as the homing pigeon, especially the White Homer, as white flesh is what the consumer wants. If the White Homers cannot be gotten, the next best color is silver or light blue. It is important to be careful to select purebred homers, as they give the best results. The care and cost of breeding is very small in comparison to the profits. They must be kept clean, boxes and other fixtures to be whitewashed, and a good supply of gravel and fresh drinking water and a small shallow pan for bathing.
Squabs grow very rapidly, and in three or four weeks they are ready to kill. Squabs of good breeds will average six pounds to the dozen, and they sell for 40 and 50 cents per pound, wholesale. The cost to establish a loft to accommodate 50 pairs, complete, birds and everything, would be about $850. On every farm there are one or two who could be spared for an hour a day to look after the pigeons. There is also a great deal of grain wasted that might be helping the farmer to pay off a mortgage or some other debt if it is just used in the right way. Every well regulated farm should have a loft of pigeons, with a large aviary made of wire to keep them from the fields.
The Woodstock Sentinel (May 31, 1900) A Flight of Pigeons
On Tuesday evening Express Agent Wyant received two cases of carrier pigeons from the Excelsior Homing club, of Milwaukee. On Wednesday morning they were taken to the street at the northeast corner of the square where quite a crowd gathered to witness their flight. At 6:57 the covers were lifted from the cases and the birds arose as if expecting release and started in a Northwesterly direction over the Hoy block, but, after semi-circling through the air for several seconds, changed their course and made off in the direction of their home – Milwaukee. The vacillated somewhat in their course as far as the eye could follow them, but they kept in a northeasterly direction until well out of site. There were about 200 birds in the lot, of many colors, and they were given this test to try them and drill them for future usefulness.
The Woodstock Sentinel (July 3, 1902) Started on a Long Race
Pueblo, Col., July 2. – Twelve of the fastest homing pigeons in the country left Pueblo Tuesday morning to make the longest official race against time ever attempted. The race will be from Pueblo to Cleveland, a distance of 1,569 miles. The birds belong to Al Fox, secretary of the Cleveland Homing Pigeon association.
The Woodstock Sentinel (May 28, 1903) Breeding Pigeons
From Farmers Review: In the breeding of pigeons one must first choose the variety he things will suit him best. There are many varieties that are unable to feed their own young on account of the shape of the beak, and for this reason most fanciers prefer a breed of pigeons that can rear their own young without what are called feeders. Pigeon breeding is like every other fancy or business, there being plenty of room at the top, and, if one expect to be successful with pigeons, he must in the first place have a fancy for them and then be willing to pay a fair price for good birds, for as a rule, the so called cheap birds are not worth feeding. My advice to a beginner would be to purchase but one pair of birds, but let that pair be first class. If not show birds themselves, they must come from good stock to be good breeders or to breed show birds. Birds can’t transmit what have not in themselves. Purchase your pigeons of a breeder with a reputation for honest dealing and from one that has demonstrated that he knows how to breed winners. Good birds in any variety suitable to start a loft with are worth from $10 to $25 a pair. This price may to some at first sight look exorbitant, but I know from long experience that if one wishes to become a fancier and be successful he must start right, and it can’t be done with cheap birds. I could write much on this subject, but hope these few lines will influence some amateur fancier to start right, so that he will find it a pleasure and a profit to continue in the fancy. – Dr. W. A. Gibson, Jackson County, Mich.
Another use of pigeons has been in times of war. At the turn of last century, many governments were training and “stockpiling” pigeons in case of war. Today, we stockpile other tools of war that are much more dangerous than pigeons. Ah, the good old days.
The Woodstock Sentinel (October 2, 1881)
The central station for the carrier pigeons kept by the German Government for use in the event of war is at Cologne, in a disused monastery. The keeper and offices are located on the ground floor, and above is a huge pigeon cote. The birds are kept in training by being sent on regular journeys, short in winter. They are all reared at Cologne, and thence dispatched to Mayence, Strasburg, and Metz. The central station is connected with Berlin by intermediate relays.
The Woodstock Sentinel (June 30, 1898) CARRIER PIGEONS IN WAR: A Proposal Has Been Made to Use Them on the Scouting Vessels Off the Coast
The experiments which the French government is now making with carrier pigeons are not novel, though from the scientific way in which they are being conducted it is believed that new data as to the efficiency of these swift birds as messengers in time of war may be gathered. Similar experiments have been made in this country recently, notably those under the management of Howard Carter, of the naval homing pigeon service of New York, says the Sun.
It is calculated that the pigeons fly at a rate varying from 30 to 60 miles an hour. This means that a message from a ship 200 miles at sea might be sent to the home loft in from four to five hours. For instance, if the pigeons were released from a scouting vessel to give warning of the approach of an enemy’s vessel of fleet they could beat the average patrol boat to shore by ten or 12 hours over a 200-mile course. Such advanced warning would be of great value in an emergency. It is proposed, in case of war, to place crates of these pigeons on board the fastest patrol boats which may be assigned to outside duty.
Mr. Carter’s method of training pigeons differs materially from that of a few years ago. He flies his birds singly or in pairs at distances ranging from ten to 400 miles from the home loft. When they are released in pairs he sends a slow bird with a swift one. He found that the old style of taking a basket full of birds and releasing them at varying distances in lots of ten or 15 didn’t fit the pigeons for swift flights when they were released singly. The New York loft broke the record for 150 miles in 1896, and it is believed that if the necessity for using pigeons arises those from this loft will do good service to this port.
The Woodstock Sentinel (May 25, 1899)
In the German army nearly 10,000 carrier-pigeons are used.
Back in the late 19th Century and early 20th, pigeon news appeared often in the papers, and the birds were greatly admired. Even today the American Pigeon Racing Union in Oklahoma City claims 700 affiliated clubs around the country.
The Woodstock Sentinel (May 11, 1905) NEW LAWS FOR PRAIRIE STATE: Review of the Work Accomplished by Illinois Lawmakers [in the Spring Session]
A law to prohibit the shooting of live pigeons for amusement or as a test of marksmanship.
The Woodstock Sentinel (October 2, 1906) Carrier Pigeon Dies in Smokestack.
Upon opening the doors in the boiler leading to the flues, at the canning factory one day last week, George Woods, the engineer at the plant, found a beautiful carrier pigeon lying dead in front of the doors. The pigeon carried around its foot a small ring upon which was engraved “E. Z. 46650.” The pigeon undoubtedly fell into the smoke stack in its flight and was left there to meet its fate. – McHenry Plaindealer.
The Woodstock Sentinel (October 10, 1907)
The delicate sense of smell possessed by the Irish setter and the sense of direction exhibited by the carrier pigeon and the polar seal as it ranges from the opening beneath its home in the inky black waters of the arctic seas in search of food for it’s young are every day yet marvelous exhibitions of the wisdom and power of an all wise Creator, who has equipped his creatures in a mysterious manner to cope successfully with their environment.
The Woodstock Sentinel (May 26, 1910)
FOUND – Blue Carrier Pigeon. Silver band marked T. Y. 9810 on foot. Rose B. Barden.
I’m not sure that many of us would even notice a silver band on a pigeon today that indicates it belongs to someone who may be worried about its whereabouts. Pigeons have become a pest bird, inhabiting the city squares and other places where people gather. Innolytics, LLC, “The Pigeon Control Company” claims that there are 400 million feral pigeons with a million of those residing in New York. On their website, they describe feral pigeons by saying, “Homing pigeons, are well known for their ability to find their way back home from long distances and at high speed. Despite these demonstrated abilities, feral pigeons are rather sedentary and rarely leave their local areas. In fact, when relocated involuntarily, they can return – sometimes within hours – to their original location.” Yes, the innate homing abilities are still demonstrable in the common feral pigeon. I have gained a new appreciation for their abilities reading these articles. For a while, the path of the humble pigeon and the path of humans merged to provide text messaging.