Pigeons of Sacred Heart & Falcons of War

‘Hi Papa I m in school, Manu is by my side.. Aseem’.

Liki is back home with the message; Supi takes turns with vivid messages, drooping its neck. The pigeons would fly back from ‘Sacred Heart Sidhpur ’ to my residence at Dharamshala. This was the pair from Jama Masjid, Delhi, I had domesticated in the early eighties with the ID rings around their legs. While Paris was under siege, the birds were first escorted out in a hot air balloon by a volunteer; Aseem Raja lifted them in his satchel by the School bus. Messenger pigeons only work in one direction, they always fly home.

  • Though, delivering handwritten letters on horseback & on foot had been the normal means of communication, yet earlier generations used homing pigeons to deliver their messages, probably to secure privacy and ensure faster delivery.
  • Historically, Genghis Khan used the pigeon post to keep control over his empire, and even in ancient Greece, homing pigeons were used to broadcast the events. During the centenary celebrations of the Indian postal service in 1954, the Orissa police pigeons conveyed the message of inauguration from the President of India to the Prime Minister.
  • If you continue feeding pigeons, they will befriend you. Their sense of smell, aids their homing sense, looking for belongingness; clinging to their roots. Baby pigeons are rarely seen because they don’t leave the nest until near adulthood. That is why adult birds continually fly back to save their chicks.

  • Easy to breed, pigeons are extremely protective of their eggs. Both parents feed the young squabs; Liki* would stay put much longer, taking Supi* as a stop-gap relief. I wondered to know later that both sexes of pigeons produce “crop milk” to feed their young ones before the adults start regurgitating partially digested grains for the young. Adult pigeons differ only slightly, males look larger than females.
  • It is said, “Pigeons are monogamous; they keep one mating partner for their entire life spans”. On the contrary; females may produce children till the age of 10 years, though males could stay fertile much longer – say fifteen years. The last female of the extinct ‘wild pigeon’ is reported to have lived a life of 29 years.
    “In tune” with their sense of direction, Homing pigeons use familiar smells to navigate their way across hundreds of kilometers of unfamiliar territory. Perhaps they are biologically attuned to the Earth’s magnetic fields.
  • “Map sense” is their geographic location. That ‘pigeons have compass sense which uses the position of the Sun along with an internal clock to work out direction’ is another theory.
  • ‘That, despite, magnetic disruption or clock changes the pigeon can still manage to get home’ is not a myth. A claim by the German and Italian ornithologists that “pigeons use airborne odors to navigate home,” is disputed, yet.

  • Madhav Mahajan of Canada has just informed – ‘researchers at Oxford University have found that the pigeons ignored their in-built compass wherever possible, choosing instead to follow the main roads beneath them. Birds find it easier to navigate by eye when they are not flying over oceans or on long-distance journeys. They are simply following roads and major junctions.’
  • Way back in 1975, we had come across fancy pigeons in the aviary of the exotic birds of ‘the Chamba Palace’ at a stone’s throw from my Residence. Though Apeem Baaba (my son’s nickname) was excited with the lovely pair gifted by Raj Kumar Saheb of Chamba, yet the birds flew back only to pay us casual visits, that too, if lured to feast on their favorite food. They never came to roost till we lived there. Perhaps it was a Lahore breed known for its impressive size and gentle nature. They like to feed on seeds, fruits, and plants and even eat insects, snails, and earthworms.
  • It was one of those days, on a picnic towards Sarol that Er. Khan came out with a game of few birds said to be ‘rock pigeons’, though contended to be ‘doves’. Umpteen species of pigeons and doves hail from one clan. However, varieties of domesticated pigeons are all said to be descendants of the rock pigeon; the world’s oldest domesticated bird.

  • Kabootarbazi, a sport from times immemorial, a hobby of Mughals and Nawabs, is still carried on by enthusiasts who train and race pigeons over great distances. In the past few years, the pigeon race in China is quite popular.
  • The National Pigeon Association of the United States conducts a national show every year. Cities hosting the show are selected many years in advance, much like the Olympics.
    o Fancy breeds like Oriental frill, Portuguese tumbler, old German owl pigeon, flying bald heads, Classic old frill, Modena, Elbert bald head tumbler, to name a few, are shown in the ‘best bird’ shows. Alas! the passenger pigeon is extinct.
  • The ‘Flying Competitions’ of pigeons is fanciers’ delight. Tipplers are also flown in endurance contest; flying results of up to 22 hours have been reported.
  • I started raising pigeons as a family hobby forty-five years ago, better for their aesthetic appeal and ambiance. Ornithology at home was on the verge of ending until BuaRani, my wife, came out to cope with the birds’ continual droppings against her strong likes for a spick and span environs.
  • Some ornamental pigeons live with Manu Maharaaj of Jamalpur; seeing them dancing to his tunes is a sight to behold through WhatsApp. “Fan-tailed cannot take a good flight,” says Manu having rescued a falcon. Meenakshi, his spiritually-minded wife, oversees their coexistence. Her ‘ live & let live’ philosophy works. After all, butchers having shut out on meat for fear of Covid-19; the ‘bird of prey’ now takes time off the refuge.
  • Pigeons have made contributions to humanity, especially in times of war as messengers. The technology of condensing hundreds of documents onto a tiny roll of microfilm gave a tremendous boost to the pigeon post.

  • In the 19th century, during the months of the siege of Paris, the only way to get in to with a message was by using a carrier pigeon. This earned them the name “war pigeons”. Soldiers of the enemy were ordered to fire at any pigeons they saw overhead, and trained falcons were flown to interrupt the service.
  • In time, various governments established systems of communication for military purposes by pigeon post; also to send messages to ships in nearby waters. Laws were passed making the destruction of such pigeons a serious offense. ‘Chinese formerly provided their pigeons with whistles and bells to scare away birds of prey’.
  • They were, somehow, kept in service until World War II; whereafter they were auctioned off as the property of the state.
  • Two pigeons reported having made three journeys, were purchased by an enthusiast for 26 francs. Surprisingly, New Kim a Belgium’s female racing pigeon has just made it to BBC news having fetched a record $ 1.9 million (approx 14 crores Rupees) at an auction, from a Chinese bidder.
  • The last of the pigeon post services in the world (Cuttack, India) was closed in 2008, although a fleet of over 150 pigeons continue to be maintained for ceremonial purposes at the Police Training College in Angul to glorify peace and harmony.
  • Though birds know no boundaries; yet in May 2020 a pigeon painted pink was arrested by Indian police on suspicion of being a spy for Pakistan. “Locals captured it near our fences. We have found a ring in its foot on which some numbers are written. Further investigation is underway.” says Senior Superintendent of Police, Kathua (Jammu)

Pigeons provide a good role model for society. They share food and live peacefully with each other. While organising many mega sports events of HPSEB, the best I liked was the dove release feature of the inaugural ceremonies. The traditional doves symbolize the need for peace around the world.

Walking on the streets of Paris in 1983, I came across flocks of pigeons where, under French law, it is illegal to feed them; apparently to get rid of the birds in highly trafficked areas. Special pigeon houses are now said to have been installed around the city since 2003; a step being taken to reduce the number of pigeons in Paris is rather an unusual form of contraception.

Pigeons are filthy birds for some while others cry over spilled milk for the extinct species. Equilibrium is a law of nature.
* Names of my pigeons

Prof. (Er.) Chander P Mahajan is an art critic & a free lance journalist. The Environmentalist stays in Shimla and Dalhousie, Himachal Pradesh, India.

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