Carrier Pigeons: the French Army’s Unsung Heroes are Still on Duty

The US might spend $700 billion on defense, but the French military will still have something we don’t: carrier pigeons.

That’s right, these birds, typically a nostalgic punchline, are still on duty at Fort Mont-Valérian, a historic fortress overlooking the city of Paris. Used in World War I to carry messages, pictures, and even blood samples, the avian agents were used as a sort of primitive drone. While they have been out mainstream use for many decades, they are still trained and battle-ready in case of emergency. What emergency? “An electromagnetic war,” says Corporal Sébastien of Mont-Valérian. “If our telecommunications no longer work,” he says, local pigeon farmers would be expected to donate their birds to the service of France.

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Doubt the ability of pigeons? In 1918, a homing pigeon named Cher Ami flew 25 miles to deliver a message about ally troops ambushed and under fire, after she had been shot by the Germans who spotted her taking off from the bushes. (To recap: twenty-five miles in 25 minutes, after being shot.) Thanks to her delivering the message, she was able to save 194 soldiers. Army medics operated to save her life, and carved her a tiny wooden leg to replace her wounded leg. She was awarded the Croix de Guerre for her service, and died in New Jersey in 1919.

Though typically considered to be the scourge of the Parisian streets, it is good to know that pigeons are capable of serving their country. If an electromagnetic war ever comes, they might still poop on statues of the Marianne, but at least they will be fighting in her name.