Anatomy of a Flashpoint

by Craig Stark

#9, 12 January 2004

Pigeon Magic

As flashpoints go, pigeon, for me, is anything but intuitive. More often than not, when I hear the word, I think of droppings on ledges and roofs of tall buildings or dull, gray birds pecking crumbs off a sidewalk in a park. These aren't the kinds of things that spell "magic." No, when I first started selling books, I had no idea that anybody would actually pay for a book about pigeons. But this illustrates one of the things I like most about being a bookseller: the process of buying and selling books, perhaps because I'm always looking for things that buyers are passionate about, inevitably and almost effortlessly fills my mind with knowledge about stuff that I otherwise would never have given thought to, let alone learned.

Take pigeons. The first time I attempted to sell a pigeon book a potential buyer emailed me and asked (as though it were no more unusual than asking what time it was) if the book contained any information on tumblers. Huh? Turns out a tumbler is a pigeon that can do backward somersaults either in flight or on the ground. You don't forget stuff like this. At that moment a door opened into a land I'd never seen, and since then I've revisited it more than once - and profited handsomely.

There is indeed magic in pigeons. When Paris was under siege during the Franco-Prussian War in late 1870 and early 1871, normal channels of communication were interrupted for over four months. During this period numerous, sometimes bizarre methods were attempted to deliver messages. Five sheepdogs were flown into Paris by balloon for the purpose of returning with mail. All were lost. Letters were inserted in zinc balls and floated down the Seine in the dark of night. Not a single one was recovered. Tens of thousands of free balloons carrying letters were launched into the winds - and of course traveled to wherever the winds took them. Few reached their intended destination. The only method that even approached reliability was - you guessed it - the pigeon.

Perhaps the most famous carrier pigeon was Cher Ami, a Black Check Cock who, on his last mission in World War I, delivered a message through enemy fire that resulted in the rescue of Major Charles Whittlesey's "Lost Battalion" of the 77th Infantry Division. Pure magic.

For centuries pigeons have been used to carry messages. Bred to carry messages. Bred to carry messages faster and faster. The very idea of this is every bit as magical as, for example, a poor slob stranded on an island putting a note into a bottle and tossing it to the waves. Today, interest in pigeons no longer has much to do with carrying messages but very much to do with racing them. Or breeding them for beauty. Books or associated ephemera pertaining to pigeons are reliably good sellers. The more uncommon ones are highly sought after. Pigeon is a flashpoint of the first order.

Because this subject is large, the pigeon's history so extensive, no attempt will be made here to list specific titles to look for. It will be more useful, I think, to list additional flashpoints associated with pigeons. Here are a dozen:

  1. Pigeon racing.

  2. Pigeon breeding.

  3. Carrier pigeon. Also referred to as the messenger pigeon.

  4. Homing pigeon. Pigeon trained to return to loft.

  5. Passenger pigeon. Common species in the first part of the 20th century. Now extinct. Great interest in them abides.

  6. Racing dove. Synonym for racing pigeon. Don't forget - pigeons are doves.

  7. Rock Dove. Ancestor of domesticated pigeons

  8. Belgium (& pigeon). Serious breeding of racing pigeons began in this country.

  9. Antwerp (& pigeon). City in Belgium where breeding began.

  10. Pigeon Post. Carrier pigeon service developed in Franco-Prussian War

  11. US Army Signal Corps (& pigeon). Made extensive use of pigeon messaging in both major wars.

  12. Cher Ami. Legendary WWI pigeon who delivered message which saved "Lost Battalion."

Additional Notes

Common breeds: Color Pigeon, Cropper, Homer, Pouter, Racer, Swallow, Syrian, Trumpeter, Tumbler - The Ultimate Pigeon Portal - Home of nearly 1,000 pigeon links.

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Questions or comments?
Contact the editor, Craig Stark

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