There’s plenty of historical precedence for “pigeonets.” The ancient Egyptians were the first to train pigeons to relay messages as far back as 2900 B.C., and Julius Caesar used them to communicate over his far-flung empire.
Some 250,000 pigeons were employed during World War II to carry messages to and from Allied forces in Britain and the European front. In 2012, a Surrey man found the remains of one of the military pigeons in his chimney, with a red cylinder containing a coded message still attached to the bird’s skeletal leg.
An exhibition in Britain later this month will honor William of Orange, a carrier pigeon who flew 260 miles in 1944 to warn the British that their forces at the Dutch/German border were under siege. He was awarded the animal equivalent of the Victoria Cross, Britain’s highest military honor.
Scientists are still trying to determine precisely how pigeons are able to navigate their way back home over hundreds of miles. But the birds are already being used to smuggle drugs, cell phones and even Cuban cigars, and some people are looking at ways to harness this extraordinary ability in the Internet age.
“It’s possible to achieve a certain level of secure communication -- but there will always be vulnerabilities. For the truly paranoid, we have two words for you: carrier pigeon,” Anthony Judge, former director of communications at the UN’s Union of International Associations, wrote in a draft proposal last June.
“These possibilities are all the more credible to the extent that secret provisions have allegedly been made for cutting off access to the internet in some manner in time of conflict between nations and across continents -- potentially under conditions of all-out cyberwarfare,” Judge notes.
“The geographical dispersion of domain registrars and web hosting facilities (server farms, etc), especially when concentrated within one country (as with the USA), increases vulnerability to any such shut-down,” he added.
Others are eyeing homing pigeons as a way to transmit large amounts of data faster than existing Internet infrastructure allows.
“Suggesting that pigeons might be faster than Internet connections might seem ridiculous, but as the information density of storage media has increased, and continues to increase, many times faster than the Internet bandwidth available to move it, [it] might not be so far-fetched,” argues University of Hawaii doctoral candidate Rex Troumbley in a paper published last July by Internet Monitor.
“Over the last 20 years, the available storage space of hard disks of the same physical size has increased roughly 100 percent per year, while the capacity of Internet connections has only increased by 30-40 percent each year,” he pointed out.
In several contests between bird and machine, the pigeons actually won, including one in England in 2010 when two carrier pigeons released from a Yorkshire farm delivered memory cards containing a five-minute video clip faster than it could be downloaded from YouTube.
The feathered head-bobbers are also at the cutting edge of science.
In October, the Long Now Foundation began sequencing the DNA of a passenger pigeon that’s been dead for more than a century. Billions of base pairs of DNA taken from “Passenger Pigeon 1871” will be used to recreate the characteristics of the long-dead bird in an attempt to “de-extinct” a species that once inhabited the vast American prairie by the billions.
Martha, the last known passenger pigeon named for First Lady Martha Washington, died in 1914 at the Cincinnati Zoo.