Top Tips For Managing Your Carrier Pigeons

Carrier pigeons were used during the First World War to relay information when other methods of communication were not possible. Pigeons were used on land, sea and even in the air, some travelling up to 100 miles through dangerous conditions to deliver important messages back to headquarters and bases.

Training the pigeons and caring for them were not easy tasks, and the British Expeditionary Force issued official guidelines for the men working in the Carrier Pigeon Service.

Here are some of the top tips from the 'Carrier Pigeons in War' pamphlet issued in March 1918, © IWM COLLECTIONS ACCESS EPH 167.

  • 1. Consider if a pigeon is needed

    'Dreadnought' - a carrier pigeon used by the Royal Engineers Signal Service.
    'Dreadnought' - a carrier pigeon used by the Royal Engineers Signal Service.
    Q 11954

    'Before deciding to send off a message by pigeon, it is necessary to consider: (a) the importance of the message; (b) the number of birds available; (c) the prospect of replacing the birds so despatched; and (d) whether the message can be sent by any other means.'

  • 2. Write a clear message

    A message carried by a pigeon. Message reads, 'On water attacked by 3 Huns'.
    A message carried by a pigeon. Message reads, 'On water attacked by 3 Huns'.
    Q 12214

    '[Messages] should be written in a clear hand, care being taken to fill in all the particulars as required by the form.'

  • 3. Attach messages with metal holders not rubber rings

    A Royal Navy pigeon is used to demonstrate the method of fixing messages to a bird's leg.
    A Royal Navy pigeon is used to demonstrate the method of fixing messages to a bird's leg.
    Q 18623

    'The use of metal carriers is much simpler, and is the method in vogue.'

  • 4. When possible, send two copies

    A sailor holding two carrier pigeons belonging to the Naval Pigeon Service.
    A sailor holding two carrier pigeons belonging to the Naval Pigeon Service.
    Q 18622

    'It is recommended that two copies of a message should be sent whenever sufficient birds are available for this procedure.'

  • 5. Pigeons and tanks

    A carrier pigeon being released from a port-hole in the side of a tank near Albert.
    A carrier pigeon being released from a port-hole in the side of a tank near Albert.
    Q 9247

    'To provide the necessary trained personnel for the large development of the Pigeon Service it has been found necessary to train, in the use and handling of Carrier Pigeons: All Officers of the Tank Battalions and sufficient O.R. [Other Ranks] to provide at least one man per fighting tank.'

  • 6. Releasing pigeons from seaplanes

    A pigeon is released from a British seaplane.
    A pigeon is released from a British seaplane.
    Q 18613

    'The arrival of a pigeon, bearing no message but known to have been sent out on a seaplane, is now recognised as a signal of distress made by that particular plane. For use with aeroplanes and seaplanes, the special box designed for the purpose of carrying the birds should always be used.'

  • 7. Lofting your pigeons

    A former London double-decker bus being used as a mobile loft for carrier-pigeons.
    A former London double-decker bus being used as a mobile loft for carrier-pigeons.
    Q 9000

    'Experience has proved that pigeons very quickly become accustomed to shell-fire, which does not appear to disturb them at all in their lofts. It thus becomes possible to take pigeons much closer to the firing line. This is usually done by means of the employment of mobile lofts.'

  • 8. Exercise your birds daily

    Homing pigeons flying from a mobile loft at the Royal Engineers Signal Service Pigeon Camp.
    Homing pigeons flying from a mobile loft at the Royal Engineers Signal Service Pigeon Camp.
    Q 29537

    'In fine weather, the birds need exercise at least twice a day. Once outside the loft they should take exercise and not be allowed to sit about when not on the wing, otherwise this will become and acquired habit and will lead to slowness in entering the loft when returning with a message.'

  • 9. Bathe your pigeons once a week

    Carrier pigeons having a water bath in a can.
    Carrier pigeons having a water bath in a can.
    Q 8865

    'A bath should be given to the birds at least once a week, during all seasons of the year.'

  • 10. Transport them in the appropriate basket

    Motorcyclist of the Royal Engineers setting out with a basket in which four pigeons are being taken to the front line.
    Motorcyclist of the Royal Engineers setting out with a basket in which four pigeons are being taken to the front line.
    Q 8878

    'There are several different types of baskets used in the pigeon service…All baskets must be supplied with at least one special water trough, either fixed or detachable, for watering the birds.'

  • 11. Start training your pigeons early

    Pigeon chicks in a bowl at the breeding pens at Sorrus.
    Pigeon chicks in a bowl at the breeding pens at Sorrus.
    Q 8872

    'The young pigeons, known as "squeakers", should be ready for service work when three months old. At this age good strong young birds will be ready to accomplish flights of from 10 to 50 miles in the field.'