A History of Homing Pigeons for Long-Distance Communication since the Ancient World

The true messenger pigeon is a variety of domestic pigeons (Columba livia domestica) derived from the wild rock dove, selectively bred for its ability to find its way home over extremely long distances. The rock dove has an innate homing ability,[1] meaning that it will generally return to its nest (it is believed) using magnetoreception.[2] Flights as long as 1,800 km (1,100 miles) have been recorded by birds in competitive pigeon racing.[3] Their average flying speed over moderate 965 km (600 miles) distances is around 97 km/h (60 miles per hour)[4] and speeds of up to 160 km/h (100 miles per hour) have been observed in top racers for short[clarification needed] distances.

Because of this skill, domesticated pigeons were used to carry messages as messenger pigeons. They are usually referred to as “pigeon post” if used in post service, or “war pigeon” during wars. Until the introduction of telephones, homing pigeons were used commercially to deliver communication.

Messenger pigeons are often incorrectly categorized as English Carrier pigeons, an ancient breed of fancy pigeons. They were used historically to send messages but lost the homing instinct long ago. Modern-day homing pigeons (homers) or racing pigeons (racing homers) do have “Carrier blood” in them because they are in part descendants of the old-style Carriers. This is one reason why they are still commonly but erroneously called “carrier pigeons”.


By 3000 BC, Egypt was using homing pigeons for pigeon post, taking advantage of a singular quality of this bird, which when taken far from its nest is able to find its way home due to a particularly developed sense of orientation. Messages were then tied around the legs of the pigeon, which was freed and could reach its original nest. By the 19th century homing pigeons were used extensively for military communications.[5]

The sport of flying messenger pigeons was well-established as early as 3000 years ago.[6] They were used to proclaim the winner of the Ancient Olympics.[6][7] Messenger pigeons were used as early as 1150 in Baghdad[8] and also later by Genghis Khan. By 1167 a regular service between Baghdad and Syria had been established by Sultan Nur ad-Din.[9] In Damietta, by the mouth of the Nile, the Spanish traveler Pedro Tafur saw carrier pigeons for the first time, in 1436, though he imagined that the birds made round trips, out and back.[10] The Republic of Genoa equipped their system of watch towers in the Mediterranean Sea with pigeon posts. Tipu Sultan of Mysore (1750–1799) also used messenger pigeons; they returned to the Jamia Masjid mosque in Srirangapatna, which was his headquarters. The pigeonholes may be seen in the mosque’s minarets to this day.

In 1818, a great pigeon race called the Cannonball Run took place at Brussels.[6] In 1860, Paul Reuter, who later founded Reuters press agency, used a fleet of over 45 pigeons to deliver news and stock prices between Brussels and Aachen, the terminus of early telegraph lines. The outcome of the 1815 Battle of Waterloo has often been claimed to have been delivered to London by pigeon but there is no evidence for this, and it’s very unlikely; the pigeon post was rare until the 1820s.[11] During the Franco-Prussian War pigeons were used to carry mail between besieged Paris and the French unoccupied territory. In December 1870, it took ten hours for a pigeon carrying microfilms to fly from Perpignan to Brussels.[

Historically, pigeons carried messages only one way, to their home. They had to be transported manually before another flight. However, by placing their food at one location and their home at another location, pigeons have been trained to fly back and forth up to twice a day reliably, covering round-trip flights up to 160 km (100 mi).[13] Their reliability has lent itself to occasional use on mail routes, such as the Great Barrier Pigeongram Service established between the Auckland, New Zealand, suburb of Newton and Great Barrier Island in November 1897,[14] possibly the first regular air mail service in the world. The world’s first ‘airmail’ stamps were issued for the Great Barrier Pigeon-Gram Service from 1898 to 1908.[15]

Homing pigeons were still employed in the 21st century by certain remote police departments in Odisha state in eastern India to provide emergency communication services following natural disasters. In March 2002, it was announced that India’s Police Pigeon Service messenger system in Odisha was to be retired, due to the expanded use of the Internet.[16] The Taliban banned the keeping or use of homing pigeons in Afghanistan.[17]

To this day, pigeons are entered into competitions.[18]