Homing pigeons have been used to carry messages since ancient times. The instincts which allow them to find their way home are not well understood. Magnetoreception (a sense which allows an organism to detect a magnetic field to perceive direction, altitude or location) may play a part in determining direction, as may a pigeon’s ability to identify landmarks. Keen sight and a superior memory also appear to be factors, although pigeons cannot keep flying to their home base in the dark or in poor visibility such as fog.
Messenger pigeons have numerous advantages in wartime. They are easy to transport, eat very little and can travel quickly. They are not easily distracted from their task (as military dogs might be) and if captured, there is no evidence of their origin or destination. With an average speed of around 90 kilometers per hour over moderate distances, they are faster than a runner, a cyclist or a man on horseback.
First World War
Pigeons were carried and used successfully in aircraft and ships. However, they were most commonly used by the British Expeditionary Force to send messages from the front line trenches or advancing units. The Carrier Pigeon Service was managed by the Directorate of Army Signals.
Pigeons were kept in stationary or mobile lofts to which they would return with their messages. Stationary lofts were sometimes established in outbuildings, sheds or even the roofs of houses. In the field, wooden sheds were often specially constructed for this purpose. Mobile lofts (horse-drawn or motorised) were used wherever it was impossible to establish a stationary loft. Once the birds were accustomed to their mobile loft in a given position, the lofts could be moved forward or to the rear.