Wait, How Exactly Do Carrier Pigeons Work?

You probably think of pigeons as a nuisance. The city-dwelling birds are typically considered everything but useful. But study up on the science of carrier pigeons, and you might just find a newfound appreciation for these secretly interesting birds.

What are carrier pigeons? These birds are trained to consistently find their way home, and thanks to some handy directional abilities, they can be used to deliver messages. Many people, from civilians to military officials to spies, have used carrier pigeons throughout history.

But how do carrier pigeons work? How could they manage to lift messages, and how do pigeons navigate? Thanks to new research, people can fully appreciate how these oft-maligned birds have contributed to communication through the ages.


  • Pigeons Are The Best Bird For The Task

    Pigeons Are The Best Bird For The Task
    Photo: Bainbridge (Lt) / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Pigeons became the preferred bird for message delivery for many reasons. First, they're relatively docile, making them easy to work with. Second, it helps that they are typically easy to capture. Most importantly, though, they are widely known for their sense of direction.

  • They Carry Small Messages

    They Carry Small Messages
    Photo: Twitter / via Pinterest

    The safe delivery of sensitive material is the main reason why the concept of carrier pigeons even exists. Messages are typically written on small pieces of paper, and rolled or stored in tubes that are then secured to the pigeon's neck or legs. Once released, the pigeon automatically proceeds to fly home. This results in the timely, and often undisturbed and undetected, delivery of messages.

  • They Must Be Carefully Trained

    They Must Be Carefully Trained
    Photo: 4028mdk09 / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 3.0

    Training pigeons for message carrying is a gradual process. The pigeons are taken to locations away from their nest or loft before being released to fly back. Over time, the trainer increases the miles between "home" and the release sites. Slowly but surely, the pigeons become proficient enough to navigate their way back from impressive distances.

  • They Follow Roads

    They Follow Roads
    Photo: K.u.k. Kriegspressequartier, Lichtbildstelle - Wien / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Experts believe that pigeons rely on several different methods to make their way home. However, from short distances, sometimes their navigation is as simple as following landmarks and manmade roads. Researchers have proven that the birds typically follow roads and highways, with no regard to whether or not the path adds miles to their trip. In fact, they can be so stringent in following roads that they have been witnessed flying around roundabouts before taking the appropriate out-road to lead them home.