The Fascinating Reason Messenger
Pigeons Know Where to Go

Amazed at how a messenger pigeon knows exactly where to go? They have fascinating navigation abilities that you should know about!

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David A. Swanson

June 27, 2021

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What’s This Post About?

Pigeons are birds with great intellect and smartness. This is displayed through their mannerisms, behavior, and, most notably, their navigation abilities.

You might have to open your Google or Apple Map app to get to a place; pigeons, on the other hand, have built-in navigational instincts that serve them well.

Homing pigeons use compass and map mechanisms to help them find their way back home. The compass mechanism aids them in flying in the right direction. On the other hand, the mapping mechanism aids them in comparing where they are to where they wish to go.

homing pigeon on ground

Which Pigeons Are Known as Messenger Pigeons?

When pigeons are employed to deliver messages, they are referred to as messenger pigeons.

The homing pigeons are basically cultured Rock Pigeons that have been deliberately engineered to be able to navigate over extraordinarily great distances so that they can locate their homes.

The biggest question which arises here is that if every pigeon has this ability to know where to go or it is special to specific breeds.

Since pigeons usually return to their own homes, early in the days, people noticed this ability, and those birds who consistently found their way back over great distances were put into selective breeding programs to improve the abilities of their offspring.

homing pigeons in air

Domesticated pigeons were utilized as messenger pigeons because of their ability to deliver messages. When employed in post service, they are known as pigeon post, and during warfare, they are known as war pigeons.

Homing pigeons were employed widely to deliver messages until the invention of the telephone.

How Do Pigeons Know Where to Go?

Experts claim: ‘Pigeons do not fly anywhere you want them to; they travel to only one place – back home’.

Pigeons react to the Earth’s magnetic field at the release location and use the fields to determine their location and then figure out how to go home. Homing pigeons travel through visual cues in the same manner as people do by following and taking recognized pathways.

You would assume that a pigeon probably takes the most direct path that is retained in their mind. However, according to researchers from Oxford University, this is not true.

Courtesy of GPS trackers, they observed that a pigeon flies alongside roads and turned on junctions and even roundabouts. According to some surveys, homing pigeons travel using minimal infrasound.

A homing pigeon is disrupted or redirected by sound waves as low as 0.1 Hz. Because the pigeon ear is too tiny to understand such a lengthy wave, pigeons are taught to fly in a circle before taking off to mentally register such long infrasound waves.

homing pigeons amidst air

There are common misconceptions regarding pigeons’ abilities to navigate. People frequently mistakenly believe that these birds know where to take a letter. It’s funny because even humans need a GPS tracker or an app to reach locations they don’t know about.

The truth is that they can only return to one ‘mentally branded’ location that they have designated as their hometown. As a result, ‘pigeon mail’ can only operate if the sender sends it through the recipient’s pigeons.

homing pigeons sitting

What Is the History of Messenger Pigeons?

In the past, before modern-day communication channels, letters were wrapped around the pigeon’s legs to deliver a message to the recipient.

The military widely utilized homing pigeons from the mid-nineteenth century. Here are some of the examples in history where messenger pigeons played a significant role.

  • Baghdad utilized messenger pigeons as early as 1150, and Genghis Khan used them later.

  • In 1860, Paul Reuter, who subsequently formed the Reuters news agency, utilized a fleet of around 45 pigeons to carry news and stock values from Brussels to Aachen.

  • A pigeon was the first to communicate the result of the Battle of Waterloo to England.

  • They were widely employed during World War 1.

  • During World War II, the First Airborne Division Signals dropped 82 of these well-trained and intelligent birds into Holland as part of Operation Market-Garden.

  • In Orissa, India’s eastern state, certain rural police stations continued to use these birds in the twenty-first century to offer urgent communication services in the aftermath of natural catastrophes.

Did You Know?

Homing pigeons were banned in Afghanistan.

messenger pigeon

What Are Some of The Different Roles the Messenger Pigeon Took?

Regardless of the role, the pigeon can only act as a messenger when the destination location is branded as 'home' in their minds!

The messenger pigeon took various roles as people became aware of their distinct abilities. They were used in wars, posts, smuggling, and even computing when people took advantage of the bird’s unique ability to find its way back home when separated from its nest owing to a highly developed sense of direction.


Before the invention of the radio, carrier pigeons were commonly employed during wars to coordinate between a mobile army and a fixed headquarters. They were frequently employed as military couriers due to their homing abilities, quickness, and elevation.

angry pigeon

Did You Know?

There was a pigeons’ barn in London, and the pigeons had to travel 390 kilometers to convey their messages.

During World War I and II, messenger pigeons of the Racing Homer breed were employed to relay information, and 32 of them were awarded the Dickin Medal. Amongst those 32 pigeons that were decorated with the awards include:

Name Year
Winkie 1943
Commando 1944
Paddy 1944
Willian of Orange 1944
Mary of Exeter 1945
G.I. Joe 1946
Gustav 1944
Beach Comber 1944

Pigeons were employed to deliver messages from behind the fortifications to their home roost.

Cables in the nest would strike a siren or alarm as they arrived, alerting a Signal Corps officer that a message had been reached. The officer would then go to the coop, detach the message and take action accordingly.

During WWII, the Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret, like Girl Guides, joined other Guides in sending messages to the World Chief Guide in 1943, as part of a drive to raise money for homing pigeons.

This extensively highlighted the use of pigeons for delivering communications across Britain.

The job of a messenger pigeon was risky. Enemy forces stationed nearby frequently tried to fire down pigeons, knowing that the released birds were transporting vital messages.

Amongst these infantry soldiers for whom they served, several of these birds became very renowned. Before being injured, one pigeon called ‘The Mocker’ completed 52 missions.

Did You Know?

Cher Ami, a homing pigeon, received the French Croix de Guerre for his bravery in delivering 12 crucial messages while being wounded

Pigeon messaging was so common that the enemy eventually became prepared. A proof of this is the Franco-Prussian war. When the Parisians used the pigeons, in retaliation, the invading Prussian Army deployed hawks to chase the pigeons.

pigeons near beach


Objects and drugs have been recorded to be smuggled over countries and into jails using homing pigeons as a smuggling method.

Pigeons have been recorded carrying illicit items like mobile phones, SIM cards, cellphone chargers, and USB cables into jails between 2009 and 2015.

In 2011, cops in Colombia seized a pigeon bringing 40 grams of marijuana and 5 grams of cocaine into jail in Bucaramanga, the country’s northernmost city.

smugglers cave

In a similar occurrence, in 2015, 100 pigeons meant to carry narcotics were captured by police in western Iran.

According to the Iran state news agency, anti-narcotics agents captured homing pigeons trained to carry cocaine in little blue containers connected to their feet.


They have mostly been utilized for pigeon racing in recent history. Pigeons were trained to race and can go at speeds of 60 to 80 miles per hour. In a single day, they may go up to 600 kilometers.

Pigeon racing is a game in which highly trained homing pigeons are released and then return home over a predetermined distance.

To decide which pigeon returned the fastest, the time it takes the pigeon to travel the distance is timed, and the bird’s rate of movement is computed. This is then compared to all of the other pigeons in the race.

racing pigeons

A single pigeon may participate from the age of six months and compete until it is over 10 years old if it survives the numerous risks connected with racing.

However, such accomplishments are unusual, and the typical racing career lasts only three years.

Did You Know?

Pigeon racing necessitates the use of a specially bred pigeon known as the Racing Homer.

Disadvantages Of Messenger Pigeons

Even though the speed with which the pigeons delivered messages proved the entire pigeon operation to be quite successful at the time but it did not happen without its own set of disadvantages though.

While the pigeon did escape the traffic or other obstacles that a human delivering could have faced, it was extremely vulnerable to other problems like the weather or predators.

Just a little bit of rain at any point of the journey could render the entire flight useless.

homing pigeons near sea

Not only is there a chance that the message gets destroyed, but there is also no way to relay this information back to from where it originated. For instance, the only way the soldiers at boundaries could find out was if it happened right in front of them.

With time as people got aware of the pigeon operation, they also got prepared to combat it.

This increasingly put the birds at risk and reduced the chances severely of successful communication. There were shooters ready to charge at the bird, and predators were released to stop the mission.

How Does This Come Under Animal Exploitation?

Animals are not just exploited if they have been chained to obey or punished to act a certain way. Animals will be considered exploited if the purpose of their use is unethical, corrupt, or harmful to them and society in any way.

Criminal gangs often use pigeons to transport narcotics. Because it is becoming increasingly difficult for traffickers to employ people as drug mules due to enhanced security measures, they often resort to animals.

The pigeons’ homing abilities are misused, and they might get hurt in the process or if caught. Not to mention smuggling of drugs or any other harmful substances can be detrimental to society.

caged pigeons

Pigeon races are also sometimes viewed as a form of animal exploitation and are thought to be against animal welfare. This is because of three reasons

  1. It involves betting raising ethical issues
  2. Animal care
  3. Widowing

PETA, for example, criticizes Taiwanese owners for transporting birds over vast oceans when just a handful reach their destination, alleging a 98 percent mortality rate.

Not only does it affect the birds that are picked for racing, but it also harms their mates left back home, considering they are monogamous species. This is known as widowing.

Keep Reading!

Multiple theories explain how messenger pigeons know where to go. In essence, there is one explanation. It does not know where to go. It knows where its home is.

The destination of any and every journey has to be the pigeon’s home. They will then react to the magnetic field of the earth and familiar routes to reach back home.

They were used in racing, wars, and even for smuggling. Such acts endanger the pigeon being used, and also their mates left back home. If you wish read up on how pigeons are monogamous, read this post.

Do Pigeons Mate for Life? Birds True Love

Very few birds form monogamous, lifelong bonds. Pigeons are one of them! Keep reading to explore more about the endearing, strong bond of pigeons.

David A. Swanson Picture

By David A. Swanson

Bird Watching USA

My name is David and I'm the the founder of Bird Watching USA! I started Bird Watching with My father-in-law many years ago, and I've become an addict to watching these beautiful creatures. I've learnt so much over about bird watching over the years that I want to share with the world everything I know about them!

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David A. Swanson Picture

David A. Swanson

Bird Watching USA

My name is David and I'm the the founder of Bird Watching USA! I started Bird Watching with My father-in-law many years ago, and I've become an addict to watching these beautiful creatures. I've learnt so much over about bird watching over the years that I want to share with the world everything I know about them!



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