How pigeons are being used to help veterans

Pigeon No. 83 is a healthy looking bird with blue-checkered wings and an iridescent green throat. If it had been alive during WWII, it might have been a war hero.

Two seasons ago, during a pigeon race from Kansas to Tennessee, No. 83 flew 610 miles in 10 hours and 10 minutes, thus earning it the first-place trophy.

While homing pigeons have historically had a place in the military, today, they are predominately used for racing.

"Odds are he never even stopped to rest," says Alvin Petty, member of the Chattanooga Racing Pigeon Club and host of the club's annual winter warm-up, the kickoff event to pigeon racing season, which begins in March.

Over millennia, humans have selectively bred wild pigeons to hone their instinct and increase their endurance, thus developing the homing pigeon, also called the racing homer. How the homing instinct works is largely a mystery. Some think the pigeons may navigate using smell, sound, the sun or even the magnetic field that surrounds the earth.

G.I. Joe: Pigeon Soldier

G.I. Joe was the first American pigeon to receive the Dickin Medal for gallantry during WWII. The pigeon is credited with saving the lives of the citizens of an Italian village and the British troops that occupied it in October 1943. Believing the area to be controlled by the Germans, the British Army ordered a bombing raid of the village. Flying 20 miles in 20 minutes, G.I. Joe arrived with the message that the British had successfully captured the village, just as the planes were about to take off, thus saving up to a thousand lives. G.I. Joe served the U.S. Army from 1943 to 1945. At the age of 18, he died at the Detroit Zoological Gardens.

War Pigeons: The Movie

To learn more about WWII pigeons, check out the 2005 documentary, “War of the Birds.” This 50-minute film tells the story of some of the war’s most heroic birds, including G.I. Joe, with commentary from surviving bird trainers. It also explores the science behind the pigeon’s navigational skills.

In the earliest times, homers could travel only around 40 miles a day. Ancient Romans would use them to deliver the results of chariot races via a small scroll fitted inside a tube attached to the bird's leg. Eight hundred years later, Genghis Khan organized the first pigeon posts, using the birds to deliver messages throughout his empire.

By the 1800s, homers had evolved to travel up to 200 miles a day.

It isn't just the mileage these pigeons cover, but the speed with which they do so. They have the ability to reach speeds up to 90 mph - putting homers among the top 12 fastest birds on earth.

During the Franco-Prussian War in 1870, the French began to use homers to carry vital messages across enemy lines. With more than a 90 percent success rate on delivering those messages - despite trained hawks looking to take them down - the concept of war pigeons took flight. Throughout WWI and WWII, the United States Army developed a special unit known as the U.S. Army Pigeon Service, enlisting tens of thousands of homing pigeons to relay messages.

For their efforts, 32 such pigeons were awarded the Dickin Medal, an honor bestowed on the most valiant animals of WWII.

Today, homers are capable of traveling up to 700 miles in one day.

A few fanciers, which is what those who race pigeons are called, name their birds, Petty says. But most call each pigeon by its unique identification number, which the bird wears on a plastic leg band. On its other leg, it wears a plastic snap-on band, embedded with a micro computer chip that records the bird's race time.

Races vary in distance from 100 to 700 miles. Birds less than 1 year old compete in the fall and do not exceed 300 miles per race. Birds at least 1 year old compete in the spring and may fly as far as 700 miles per race. The best pigeons - like Petty's No. 83 - can cover that distance in a single day.

On race day, all the feathered contenders are transported in one large trailer to the same release site. Once they are "liberated," the birds begin their breakneck journeys back to their respective lofts, propelled forward by their homing instinct.

Due to technological advancements, pigeons are no longer needed on the battlefield, yet they maintain their connection to the military. The sport of pigeon racing attracts a large number of veterans. The Chattanooga Racing Pigeon Club, for instance, has 24 members, and roughly one-third are veterans.

"It meets a need that veterans didn't even know they had," says Don Snow, a Vietnam veteran, member of the local club and co-founder of The Pigeon Veteran Outreach Connection, an Ooltewah-based project that uses racing homers like therapy animals.

"I don't look at myself as a founder. I look at myself as a veteran who cares about other veterans," says Snow, who also shies away from the word "therapy."

"You'll find very few veterans that say, 'I need therapy.' They don't reach out; they wait for somebody to reach out to them," Snow says.

To promote the outreach program, Snow and T. Berokoff, co-founder and fellow fancier, speak at veterans' events and share literature with counselors at the local Veterans Affairs clinic. Veterans interested in the sport are invited to become members of the Chattanooga Racing Pigeon Club. They are aided in building pigeon lofts, provided pigeons and introduced to a community of others who keep and care for the birds.

The act itself of caring for pigeons can be healing, Snow says.

In contrast to sports like horse racing where different individuals breed, own and train the animal, "[in] pigeon racing, 99 percent of the time the fancier is the breeder, owner and trainer. It is much more personal," says Berokoff, one of the racing club's only two female members.

Often, fanciers raise their racing pigeons from birth. A newly hatched pigeon is about thumb-sized and coated in soft yellow fuzz. Just to hold those tiny birds, to hear them coo, is calming and peaceful, Snow says.

"The pigeon depends on you. You care for it and it cares for you. Humans are not animals and animals are not human, but we can still relate to each other," he says.

In addition to providing the bird with its basic needs, fanciers must train their birds if they are to become champions. Beginning about 6-8 weeks before a homer's first race, when the bird is around 6 months old, fanciers begin training it, which means releasing the homer away from the loft so that it can practice finding its way home. Each week, the distance is increased with the hope that some day the homer will become what is known as a 600-mile-day bird, like Petty's No. 83.

"I used to play sports, but I'm too old now. I compete through my pigeons," says Petty, who is also a Vietnam veteran. "And when you see that bird finally come home, there is just nothing like it."