Thursday, December 25, 2008


November 19th was a great day to be birding along the cold, blustery Lake Erie shoreline in the Cleveland region. Massive packs of Red-breasted Mergansers created the appearance of low-lying, fast-moving storm clouds scudding just above the horizon. Bouyant squeaking buzzy throngs of Bonaparte's Gulls swirled in the harbors, members of the gang stooping occasionally to deftly snag an emerald shiner or some other piscine treat. Among their ranks we spotted a rarity: Little Gull, jumping out from afar due to its sooty charcoal underwings.

And there were other great finds. Pomarine Jaeger, a falcon of the gull world and inveterate kleptoparasite, riling the Laridians to no end when it enters the scene.

Two insanely tame Purple Sandpipers, bumbling about icy, moss-cloaked limestone boulders of riprap, literally at our feet. Both Black and Surf Scoters, bulbous-billed clam-crackers, a small flock of which moored themselves over a zebra mussel encrusted reef. Above the scoters, in a backyard on the bluff, was an entirely unexpected Eastern Phoebe.

Of course, the day started auspicuously enough when a Red Crossbill flew directly over my head as I waited for birding companions in the parking lot of Mentor Headlands.

But it's the Rock Pigeon I want to mention. I like them. Thus, when we stopped in at Cleveland's Edgewater Park, hoping for a grass-grazing Brant, I was delighted by the perk of fantastic pigeon photo ops. There they were, intermixed by the dozen with scads of Ring-billed Gulls, hoping for a handout. And many Edgewater visitors oblige them, but not me. I just shot photos of the beautiful birds in all their crazy color variations.

Pigeons are much-maligned, but are not really worthy recipients of our abuse. Sure, they aren't native, but we brought them here. And unlike House Sparrows or European Starlings, they do very little in terms of causing ecological damage or harming native birds. Large congregations can damage man-made property and occasionally be vectors of disease, but you know what they say about paybacks.

Look at all of the cool color variations in this mob. The pigeons with smooth gray bodies, two dark wingbars, and a dark head are the classic wild phenotype, known as blue-bars. But people have been fooling with pigeons for a long time, crossing them to produce other color forms, leading to a wild hodgepodge of forms. Dead center in the above photo is a gorgeous piebald bird, and others show dominant cinnamons, blacks, varied whites, and grays in a dazzlingly mad varied array.

Rock Pigeons have served science well. By conducting endocrinology studies with pigeons, the pituitary hormone prolactin was discovered. Scads of studies have been conducted on their flight mechanics, orientation, and color genetics. The literature spawned by the lowly pigeon could fill a small library, probably.

If I was to be a bird, I would have to give the Rock Pigeon some consideration. Mainly for their fantastic aerial prowess. If you've not done so, watch a flock on the wing sometime. Coursing high above the city, they meld together as one, performing elegant high-speed jigs and jags, flowing through the sky with a grace that few other birds manage. Breeders have honed these flying skills, creating amazingly adept aerialists such as the "rollers". CLICK HERE to watch the wacky antics of this form. I GUARANTEE you will be impressed.

Pigeon fanciers have long recognized the superb aeronautics of pigeons, and for centuries have raised birds for the joy of flying them. Keeping pigeons was, and probably still is, popular in the most urban of buroughs, like Brooklyn, NY. Fancy coops were kept on the rooftops high above city streets, and the pigeons were regularly liberated to course far and wide over the concrete jungles, the coteries always returning to their lofts.

Stunning blue-bar. What's not to like? If he were as rare as, say, a Pomarine Jaeger or Purple Sandpiper, we'd all be flabbergasted at the sight of this pigeon. Many an ooh and awe would be exchanged amongst the birders as we commented over the elegant grays tinged with coppery purples, the beautifully robust shape, and the waxy-white ceres.

One last commentary on the pigeons' contribution to mankind; one that is not so well known.

In the heat of World Wars I and II (and previous conflicts), prompt passage of intelligence between frontline fighting and Allied command behind the lines was problematic. Electronic communications were nowhere near as advanced as today, and it was quickly discovered that radio messages could easily be intercepted.

Enter the pigeon. "War Pigeons" were widely used as messengers, transporting documents over and through some of the fiercest fighting. Tiny scrolls or microfilm were attached to the pigeons' legs, and off they were sent to deliver intelligence to the commanders. The UK alone deployed some quarter-million pigeons during WW II, and some of these birds were awarded medals of valor.

Rightly so; they faced grave danger. Many were shot from the sky, as the enemy knew what their mission was. For a while, the Germans sicced trained Peregrine Falcons on soldier-pigeons. This ploy was abandoned as it was soon realized that the falcons failed to distinguish between German pigeons (they used them, too) and those of the other side.

Some estimates claim that war pigeons saved the lives of thousands of Allied soldiers in the two world wars. Probably the most famous of the pigeons in battle was Cher Ami. This bird is well worth reading about, and below is a beautiful summary of her most famous act of heroism, taken directly from the Home of Heroes website:

Probably the most famous of all the carrier pigeons was one named Cher Ami, two French words meaning "Dear Friend". Cher Ami spent several months on the front lines during the Fall of 1918. He flew 12 important missions to deliver messages. Perhaps the most important was the message he carried on October 4, 1918.

Mr. Charles Whittlesey was a lawyer in New York, but when the United States called for soldiers to help France regain its freedom, Whittlesey joined the Army and went to Europe to help. He was made the commander of a battalion of soldiers in the 77th Infantry Division, known as "The Liberty Division" because most of the men came from New York and wore a bright blue patch on their shoulders that had on it the STATUE OF LIBERTY.

On October 3, 1918 Major Whittlesey and more than 500 men were trapped in a small depression on the side of the hill. Surrounded by enemy soldiers, many were killed and wounded in the first day. By the second day only a little more than 200 men were still alive or unwounded.

Major Whittlesey sent out several pigeons to tell his commanders where he was, and how bad the trap was. The next afternoon he had only one pigeon left, Cher Ami.

During the afternoon the American Artillery tried to send some protection by firing hundreds of big artillery rounds into the ravine where the Germans surrounded Major Whittlesey and his men. Unfortunately, the American commanders didn't know exactly where the American soldiers were, and started dropping the big shells right on top of them. It was a horrible situation that might have resulted in Major Whittlesey and all his men getting killed--by their own army.

Major Whittlesey called for his last pigeon, Cher Ami. He wrote a quick and simple note, telling the men who directed the artillery guns where the Americans were located and asking them to stop. The note that was put in the canister on Cher Ami's left leg simply said:
"We are along the road parallel to 276.4."Our own artillery is dropping a barrage directly on us."For heaven's sake, stop it."

As Cher Ami tried to fly back home, the Germans saw him rising out of the brush and opened fire. For several minutes, bullets zipped through the air all around him. For a minute it looked like the little pigeon was going to fall, that he wasn't going to make it. The doomed American infantrymen were crushed, their last hope was plummeting to earth against a very heavy attack from German bullets.

Somehow Cher Ami managed to spread his wings and start climbing again, higher and higher beyond the range of the enemy guns. The little bird flew 25 miles in only 25 minutes to deliver his message. The shelling stopped, and more than 200 American lives were saved...all because the little bird would never quit trying.

On his last mission, Cher Ami was badly wounded. When he finally reached his coop, he could fly no longer, and the soldier that answered the sound of the bell found the little bird laying on his back, covered in blood. He had been blinded in one eye, and a bullet had hit his breastbone, making a hole the size of a quarter. From that awful hole, hanging by just a few tendons, was the almost severed leg of the brave little bird. Attached to that leg was a silver canister, with the all-important message. Once again, Cher Ami wouldn't quit until he had finished his job.

Cher Ami became the hero of the 77th Infantry Division, and the medics worked long and hard to patch him up. When the French soldiers that the Americans were fighting to help learned they story of Cher Ami's bravery and determination, they gave him one of their own country's great honors. Cher Ami, the brave carrier pigeon was presented a medal called the French Croix de guerre with a palm leaf.

Though the dedicated medics saved Cher Ami's life, they couldn't save his leg. The men of the Division were careful to take care of the little bird that had saved 200 of their friends, and even carved a small wooden leg for him. When Cher Ami was well enough to travel, the little one-legged hero was put on a boat to the United States. The commander of all of the United States Army, the great General John J. Pershing, personally saw Cher Ami off as he departed France.
Back in the United States the story of Cher Ami was told again and again. The little bird was in the newspapers, magazines, and it seemed that everyone knew his name. He became one of the most famous heroes of World War I.

So, next time you have the opportunity to admire a pigeon, or better yet, a group of them, consider what they've done for us. Not too many species of birds can lay claim to the important contributions to humankind that pigeons have made.


Anonymous said...

Hi Jim,
Great story Cher Ami! I agree fully with you the pigeon is a great bird. I have always loved the pigeon!! I especially liked this post. Have a Happy New Year.
Gary Wayne

donaldthebirder said...

Having/racing pigeons when I was a kid probably had a lot to do with sparking my interest in birds. I had some rollers as well. They are interesting birds.

Anonymous said...

Hey Jim,
A bit of trivia here ... Major Whittlesey was the first cousin twice removed from a renowned Ohio geologist also named Charles Whittlesey. I recognized the name in the story and did a bit of genealogy to see what the relationship was. Major Whittlesey also had a grandfather named Ami. Did he name Cher Ami after his grandfather, or was it a coincidence that the brave bird had his grandfather's name? There's always more to a story.

Jim McCormac said...

Thanks for the interesting pieces of the puzzle, Lisa. There must be a connection to the Major and the name of the pigeon. Very interesting stuff!


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