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From the World War I Centennial News Podcast

All About Pigeons: Andrew Blechman

ww1 Centennial News Podcast LogoIn October 19th's WW1 Centennial News Podcast, Episode 93, host Theo Mayer spoke with journalist and renowned pigeon expert Andrew Blechman, a name that we frequently encountered while researching pigeons for Episode 92. In the interview, Mr. Blechman answered questions about this unique bird, its long relationship with humanity, and of course, how the pigeon impacted the War that Changed the World. 


Theo Mayer: A few weeks ago, we did a segment for WW1 Tech about pigeons. It tied in with the famous Cher Ami and the Lost Battalion and we got a lot of feedback about those birds. Apparently listeners' heads have been bobbing up and down as they picked at a bunch of unanswered questions. Well, in the research for that story, one expert name kept coming up over and over again: Andrew Blackman. So here as a followup is Mr. Blechman himself. Andrew Blechman is an award winning journalist who's been a reporter for The Los Angeles Times and The Des Moines Register. His work has also appeared in the Smithsonian Magazine, The New York Times, and the International Herald Tribune among others, and one of his books has become the sort of pigeon reference guide. It's titled Pigeons: The Fascinating Saga of the World's Most Revered and Reviled Birds. Andrew, welcome.
Andrew Blechman: Happy to be here.

Theo Mayer: Andrew, we talked about this interview in our editorial meeting and I think we're as fascinated by pigeons as the rest of the world. Starting with your book title, why are pigeons revered and reviled?

Andrew Blechman: Well, it's interesting. For the vast majority of recorded history they've been revered. Mesopotamians mentioned them in their cuneiform tablets, the Egyptian hieroglyphs. They were seen as fertility symbols. They were the first domesticated bird. They've been used all through human history. Messages were sent up and down the Nile about flood levels and they've been used during all sorts of wars to help us. Josh Reuters started his news gathering organization on the backs of pigeons.


Dr. BlechmanAndrew Blechman is a journalist, author, and pigeon authorityReviling is actually quite new, it's only since the end of WW2 and it had to do with the over-abundance of pigeons in our cities. It's mostly an Anglo-American thing in terms of profiling them and it happened pretty quickly. The pest control industry reviled them as well in their advertisements. When there was so much cheap food around in the abundance after WW2, more food fell on the ground and you end up getting a lot more pigeons, so that's how they became reviled.

Theo Mayer: Okay, so everybody's got this general vision about homing pigeons. They seem to loyally return to the roost, right? But how do you imprint 'home' on a homing pigeon?

Andrew Blechman: It happens automatically. Homing pigeons are a breed within the species of pigeons and basically they're bred for their homing instinct. Some are better than others, just like some people play soccer better than others. When you train them, you take them a block away, a mile away, 10 miles away, eventually up to 600 miles away if they're racers and they'll just come back home like a laser guided missile without stopping for food, water, rest or anything.

Theo Mayer: Now, we were kicking this question around and wanted to ask you. When we did the article, we found these mobile pigeon coops from WW1 for messenger pigeons. How does that work for the pigeons if the coop is mobile and changing locations?

Andrew Blechman: That was high tech at the time, frankly, at least in terms of animal breeding. The most important thing to know about them as homers don't go from A to B. Homers go from B back to A. Reuters would send messages from one place back to the other, and then he would take the pigeons back, and then send them back again with news releases.

Same thing with the mobile last, but somehow the breeders, the 'pigeoniers' were able to acclimate them so the loft became their homing spot versus a permanent spot. It's just a really tremendous amount of breeding and training acumen.

Theo Mayer: There's a lot of theories about how the birds know where home is. Any current leading theories or even conclusions?

Andrew Blechman: There's a lot of theories and it seems to be as a combination of all of them. First of all, they seem to have a way to sense the Earth's magnetic field. They have little pieces of magnet in their brain. They have a very keen sense of smell. They have ultra sound hearing so they can hear wind passing the Rockies hundreds of miles away, and they also have ultraviolet vision so they can see things that we don't see, so it seems to be a combination of all of it. They're always just trying to get home and usually to a spouse.

Theo Mayer: Well, does it help if you have the pigeon spouse in the roost?

Andrew Blechman: It actually does. In fact a lot of the racers will have be mated with the spouse and then use that as motivation to get home as well as a good bowl of food. One thing has been noted about these birds, they're not only incredibly smart, they're also incredibly gentle. They mate for life. They're great parents. They raise the children equally, including even sitting on the eggs. They have a sense of always wanting to get home.

Theo Mayer: They are really fast too aren't they?

Andrew Blechman: They're incredibly fast. You'll have birds that will get home from 600 miles away from places they've never been before, not stopping for anything at all. Literally someplace they'd never been before. 600 miles flying at the average speed of 60 miles an hour.US troops and pigeonUS troops release a homing pigeon. Homing pigeon breeding and training practices reached new heights of sophistication during the Great War

Theo Mayer: Okay. Andrew, last question. Besides carrying messages, what are the other jobs pigeons have been tasked with over the years?

Andrew Blechman: Well, messaging is a big one and that's how they were used during the wars. Pigeons in some ways are more reliable than any other form of communication. You don't need electricity and you don't need a long extended cable, you just need a bird. That's basically what they have been used for, for the most part. They can be used for spotting a stranded boat in the middle of the ocean. They're also particularly good at spotting anomalies, like if you were to have a bunch of tassels coming off an assembly line, they can pick out the one that doesn't look like the others. But sending messages is critical and that's what they've been doing and frankly they're still being used for that. Saddam Hussein used them to send messages during the war and the insurgents have been using them in the Middle East since then to send messages. Unlike electronic communications, they can't be spied on. 

Theo Mayer: You can't really make them talk either.

Andrew Blechman: That's right. You can't make them talk.

Theo Mayer: Okay, so what else should we think about when we think about pigeons?

Andrew Blechman: I'll leave you one story about the duty of pigeons and it has to do with Mike Tyson. Mike Tyson grew up in Brownsville, which was a really, really tough neighborhood. He grew up with very little adult supervision and he was pretty much trapped in the sense of where he came from and he developed a hobby which was working with a certain kind of pigeon called a flight. Flights like to fly in circles and for hours and hours and hours of their time, and so what he would do is, he would go onto the roof of the house he was on and he would release his birds and he would watch them fly for hours at a time and for him that was the only sense of freedom he saw or witnessed. Just birds flying freely above him because he had known enough from himself. He actually got into boxing when some local kids killed one of his pigeons and got furious and that's kind of how his fighting career started. And I should say too that in most cultures they are still very much revered and appreciated. And literally the fate of thousands and thousands of soldiers has rested upon the wings of pigeons.

Theo Mayer: Andrew Blechman is the journalist and author of Pigeons: the Fascinating Saga of the World's Most Revered Birds. Learn more about his writing and his books by following the links in the podcast notes.