Unlike eagles, hawks, and others, pigeons are an Adirondack bird surrounded by neither lore nor legend. Yet for more than a century, they were players in a remarkable system of interaction between strangers, birds, and their owners. Others were tied to noted historical events, and a few were undisputed participants in major criminal activity.
The bird referred to here is the homing pigeon. According to the Atlas of Breeding Birds in New York State, the Rock Dove is “commonly known as the domestic or homing pigeon,” and is a non-native, having been introduced from Europe in the early 1600s.
They are often mistakenly called carrier pigeons, and the confusion is understandable. There are carrier pigeons, and there are pigeons that carry things, but they’re not the same bird. Homing pigeon are the ones used to carry messages and for pigeon racing.
Racing them has proven very popular. Regionally, there is the Schenectady Homing Pigeon Club (more than 60 years old), which in the 1930s competed with the Albany Flying Club and the Amsterdam Pigeon Club.
The existence of those clubs, the carrying of messages, and other related activities are all based on a long-studied phenomenon that is still debated: how the heck do homing pigeons do what they do? Basically, if taken to a faraway location and released, they usually return to their home, and in a fairly straight line.
Flocks have been released and tracked by airplanes, and transmitters have been attached to the birds, confirming their direct routes. They use a variety of navigation methods, the most important and least understood of which involves the earth’s magnetic orientation.
In recent decades, Cornell University’s famed ornithology unit summarized their findings after extreme testing: “Homing pigeons can return from distant, unfamiliar release points.” And what did these scientists do to challenge the birds’ abilities? Plenty.
According to the study, “Older pigeons were transported to the release site inside sealed metal containers, supplied with bottled air, anesthetized, and placed on rotating turntables, all of which should make it hard for them to keep track of their outward journey.” The birds still homed effectively.
This unusual ability has been enjoyed and exploited for centuries. In 1898, in order to keep up with European military powers, the US Navy established the Homing Pigeon Service. One use was ship-to-shore communication in any conditions—when pigeons sent aboard the ship were released with a message attached, they flew directly back to their home loft.
Their use during World Wars I and II is legendary, and many were decorated with medals. In 1918, pigeon racing was temporarily banned in the United States to ensure that all birds were available for the use of the military.
In peacetime, homing pigeons were treated with near-universal respect and were weekly visitors to the North Country. Whenever one with a metal band or a message tube attached to it was found, standard protocol was followed by all citizens. The birds were immediately given water and food. If they appeared injured, the information from the leg band was given to local police, who tried to contact the owner.
Caring for the birds, whether ill or healthy, was automatic, and it continued until the journey was resumed. For more than 130 years, Adirondack weekly newspaper columns mentioned the landing of homing pigeons (but usually called them carrier pigeons). If a bird somehow appeared to be off course, the leg band information might appear in a short article or in an advertisement.
That informal system was widely used and religiously followed. To further protect the birds (and the system itself) and to confirm their importance, New York State’s Forest, Fish, and Game Commission made it law: “No person shall take or interfere with any… homing pigeon if it have the name of its owner stamped upon its wing or tail, or wear a ring or seamless leg band with its registered number stamped thereon, or have any other distinguishing mark.”
“Homers” were often used for races from 100 to 500 miles. They didn’t always alight where the owner intended, usually due to stormy weather. Many of the birds that landed in the North Country came from Montreal, where their use for racing and message carrying was common.
In 1912, one Canadian visitor settled inside the walls of Clinton Prison at Dannemora. The warden dutifully cared for the bird and attempted to contact its owner.
In 1898, little Miss Gertrude Hough of Lowville received a letter by US Mail from the Los Angeles post office. It had arrived in LA attached to a pigeon that had been released by Gertrude’s father from Catalina Island, more than 20 miles offshore.
And in 1936, a homing pigeon landed on the window sill of a Malone home, where it was treated to the proper care. Well beyond the norm, the bird’s journey had begun in Montana.
Invariably, efficient systems like bank accounts, credit cards, the internet, and homing pigeons are usurped for other purposes. In recent years, pigeons have been used by ingenious crooks to smuggle drugs from Colombia and diamonds from African mines.
In both cases, the North Country was light-years ahead of them. In 1881, an elaborate case of diamond smuggling from Canada into St. Lawrence County was uncovered. A Rensselaer Falls farmer brought to customs authorities a dead “carrier pigeon” with part of a turkey feather, filled with diamonds, attached to the bird’s leg.
During the investigation, two more diamond-carrying birds were shot. It was discovered that baskets of birds were being mailed to locations in Canada, and other flocks were located south of the border, awaiting duty. Shipments of pigeons had originated at DeKalb Junction, Heuvelton, Rensselaer Falls, and Richville, and the value of diamonds successfully smuggled was estimated at $800,000 (equal to about $17 million today).
During Prohibition, both booze and drug smuggling were rampant. In 1930, US officials were tipped off that a number of homing pigeons were routinely being shipped north into Quebec. Upon release, they crossed back into northern New York.
Authorities at Ogdensburg were put on the case when it was found that each pigeon bore a payload of about one ounce of cocaine. At times it was literally a fly-by-night operation—some of the birds had been trained to fly under cover of darkness.
Homing pigeons also played a role in regional historical events. In 1920, a military balloon launched from Rockaway Point in New York City sailed across the Adirondacks. Last sighted above Wells in Hamilton County, it then vanished. Extended high-profile searches turned up nothing, and three men aboard the balloon were lost.
Such missions routinely carried homing pigeons for air-to-ground communication. It was believed that an injured pigeon (broken leg) found on a Parishville (St. Lawrence County) farm had been launched from the balloon, and that its message had been lost during the accident that broke the bird’s leg. It was suspected that the balloon had finally gone down over Lake Ontario.
One of the most famous kidnapping cases in American history occurred in 1932 when the Lindbergh baby disappeared. When the body was found, nearly every newspaper in the land covered the story the next day with multiple articles.
Among the first stories was one emanating from Lowville, New York, where a homing pigeon had landed at the home of Arthur Jones. The bird’s leg had a non-traditional attachment—a piece of twine holding a paper tag bearing the inscription, “William Allen, New Jersey.” It was William Allen of New Jersey who found the Lindbergh child’s corpse.
Lead investigator Colonel H. Norman Schwarzkopf (Stormin’ Norman’s father) followed up on the information and then issued a statement: “Reports from Lowville show that no registry tag was found on the carrier pigeon. This practically precludes the possibility of further tracing the pigeon unless the owner of the same voluntarily reports its absence.”
In June, 1936, before more than two dozen reporters and celebrities, former World Heavyweight Champion Jack Dempsey and his wife released a homing pigeon from the tower of the Empire State Building at 11:20 am. Less than five hours later it arrived at Scaroon Manor on Schroon Lake, bearing the first honeymoon reservation of the season.
It wasn’t for Dempsey’s honeymoon—it was just a publicity stunt to keep his name active in the media, and certainly raised the manor’s profile as well.
Photo Top: Homing pigeon with message in tube.
Photo Middle: WW I military troops in trench, sending messages by pigeon.
Photo Bottom: Winged members of the military.
Lawrence Gooley has authored nine books and many articles on the North Country’s past. He and his partner, Jill McKee, founded Bloated Toe Enterprises in 2004. He took over in 2010 and began expanding the company’s publishing services. For information on book publishing, visit Bloated Toe Publishing.