It was an exciting news item: the discovery of the remains of a homing pigeon in a chimney somewhere south of London, UK. The pigeon took off from the European mainland on June 6th 1944, and carried a coded message in a red capsule attached to one of its legs. It even had a code name: 40TW194.
What would have happened if the pigeon did make it to its destination? Would the message, that has not been uncoded yet, have changed the course of the war? Interesting questions. But I was struck more by the last sentence of the news item about the dead pigeon in a Dutch newspaper.
‘A Dutch homing pigeon, named William of Orange, delivered a message from Arnhem to the UK in September 1944. A distance of 480 km. It took off at 10.30 and arrived at 14.55, which was a record.’
What an incredible speed for a simple bird: 480 km in 4,5 hours is about 107 km/h. Even if the departure and arrival times are in different time zones, it is still an amazing 87 km/h. Was this speed actually possible? Yes, pigeons can travel 60 – 130 km/h, depending on wind and weather conditions.
Try to travel 480 kilometers in a car, and try to keep up with William of Orange. You will not if you keep to the speed limits, because William can travel as the crow, excuse me: pigeon, flies. And you cannot. He will wave goodbye to you when you reach the water and you have to take a horrendously slow ferry. You could take a helicopter or a small airplane to outsmart William. But in the end, he is running on bird seed and was born out of an egg, you can’t say that about a helicopter.
So a homing pigeon is still a fast and cheap means of transport. But it does have its limitations. It can only carry tiny loads, and probably its only possible destination is home. However, some smart people might find an interesting niche for homing pigeons.
Some already did. In 2011 a pigeon was arrested in Colombia for trying to enter a prison building with 40 grams of cocaine and 5 grams of another drug attached to its back. The load was a bit too heavy…