Sketch of a carrier pigeon, illustrated by Anna Macdonald

Long before the introduction of the 140 character "tweet" that travels through time at record speeds, carrier pigeons were transmitting messages across long distances literally carrying a piece of paper while flying through the air. It is no wonder, then, that they were used on board ships, even during the search for Sir John Franklin's Arctic expedition.

Many of the search ships carried pigeons, such as Prince Albert which sailed in 1851 under the command of Charles Forsyth with two birds on board. Carrier pigeons are not like the feral pigeons most commonly found in cities today. Though carrier and feral pigeons have the same ancestor, the Rock Dove, carrier pigeons are homing pigeons. This means that they have an ability to find their way back to the nest where they were raised, even after travelling very long distances. Scientists still are not sure exactly how they do it.

When travelling, instead of carrying stamps for a letter or postcard, people took one or several pigeons with them in case they needed to send a message while they were away. Since the birds had been raised at the starting point of the journey, their bird brains learned that the starting point was "home". When a person needed to send a message, they would attach a note to the pigeon and release it, whereupon it would fly home to deliver it. The system had its obvious risks, not to mention the challenges of carrying a bird around, and delivery was not guaranteed: pigeons could be shot, get disoriented, or be eaten by predators. For example, on Prince Albert, one of the pigeons escaped just as the ship left the port of Stromness, Scotland. In order to let those on shore know why a stray pigeon was flying home, the crew dropped a bottle overboard containing a message explaining the situation. The bottle was picked up on one of the Orkney Islands.Footnote 1 In this case, the crew chose to make use of another common form of communication, the message in a bottle.

Besides being able to carry letters, carrier pigeons could also send signals. According to a newspaper article, four pigeons accompanied Sir John Ross during an 1850 search for Franklin when he left from Ayr, Scotland. Before setting sail, Ross had left word that he would send the younger pair of pigeons when he arrived in his winter quarters and the older pigeons in the event that he found Sir John Franklin. Months later, when two pigeons returned to Ayr, the excited townspeople presumed that these pigeons must be from Ross. The newspaper stated that "[t]his coincidence strongly strengthens the supposition that the bird is really what it is supposed to be - one of the companions of the gallant old navigator…" Several people identified the birds as the young pigeons he had taken and concluded that he had settled into winter quarters. One observer estimated that the pigeons must have travelled almost 3,200 km (2,000 miles) to get there! Ross and the crew of Felix did indeed spend the winter in the Arctic, returning in September 1851.Footnote 2

It appears that Captain Ross used at least one other carrier pigeon during this expedition. Royal Navy records contain a request he penned in July 1851 from Cornwallis Island to the Secretary of the Admiralty back in London. After being in the Arctic for over a year and anticipating that he would be there a second winter, Ross needed to provide some attention to his financial affairs at home. His instructions included a request that his pension, received for wounds, be made to his wife Lady Ross. While the original letter was likely carried by a supply ship, of particular interest is the message’s postscript: "Copy sent by carrier pigeon."Footnote 3

Though carrier pigeons are not used today, they do have some modern-day parallels. Travellers constantly kept pigeons with them in case they needed to send a message, just as many people today carry their cell phones with them all the time. As well, since pigeons could only carry light loads, the message tied to one leg had to be relatively short - just like a text-message or a tweet.

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