From the Archive — From the November 2015 issue

Birds on the Wane

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Before the invention of the electric telegraph enabled man to outrival the boast of Shakespeare’s Puck that he would “put a girdle round about the earth in forty minutes,” the carrier-pigeon afforded the most rapid means of conveying intelligence between places far remote from each other. In ages the memory of which is dimly preserved in vague legends and traditions, these graceful couriers of the air were employed to carry messages of love and war. It is surmised by some writers that the “dove” let loose from the Ark, which returned at even-tide with an olive branch in its beak, was a carrier-pigeon. On one occasion when an Egyptian king assumed the double crown of Upper and Lower Egypt, a prince let fly four pigeons and commanded them to announce to the south, north, west, and east that “Horus, the son of Isis and Osiris, has put on the splendid crown of the Upper and Lower country; that the king Ramses III has put on the two crowns.” At the memorable siege of Mutina, Hirtius and Brutus held constant communication by this means, while Antony, through whose beleaguering host no courier could make his way, beheld with rage and chagrin the passage to and fro of these aerial messengers. In vain he tried every expedient to intercept them. Nets and lures were of no avail, nor could his strongest and most expert archers bring them down as they sped their way, far above the camps, between the besieged and their friends. Wealthy Romans carried pigeons in baskets to the Amphitheatre, for the purpose of sending home the names of guests whom they invited at that place of amusement, or to order a change in the dinner. The building being open at the top, the released messengers would rise above the walls and fly home with the important information.

Tasso refers to the employment of carrier-pigeons at the siege of Jerusalem, and relates how Godfrey, commander of the Christian host, on one occasion protected one of these messengers from the attack of a falcon which had been let loose by the infidels to destroy it. It is a historical fact that they were employed during the Crusade of Louis IX, in 1219. When the Christian army attacked Mansurah, the Saracens sent off a pigeon to Cairo with a billet announcing the fact attached to its wing, and later the same day another pigeon was dispatched to carry the news of the total defeat of the French.

Since the general introduction of the electric telegraph the carrierpigeon has lost much of its importance in Europe as a news carrier; but down to a very recent period it was always employed when celerity as well as security was desired. During the Napoleonic Wars, news of great battles was transmitted to governments and private parties by this means when the ordinary modes of sending dispatches by couriers were attended by danger and delay. They are still, or were until very recently, employed in England to announce the results of the great races, affording a surer and speedier means of transmitting private intelligence than the overcrowded telegraph, over which messages are frequently delayed for hours by the pressure of business. The winged messenger in nine cases out of ten would arrive at its destination while the dispatch was still waiting its turn on the telegrapher’s desk.

From “Pigeon Voyagers,” which appeared in the April 1873 issue of Harper’s Magazine. The complete essay — along with the magazine’s entire 165-year archive — is available online at harpers.org/fromthearchive.

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