Carrier pigeons between Taiwan, India, and Mount Ararat

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Or, what makes a turtle a dove?

When I was teaching at Tunghai University from 1970-72, naturally I spent the bulk of my time in Taichung ("Tai Central"), but I would regularly visit my in-laws in Taipei ("Tai North"), 160 km to the north.  They lived in a part of the city that was situated midway between National Taiwan University and Taiwan Normal University, where there were still many grand, old, wooden Japanese-style houses.

There were lots of memorable happenings in those neighborhoods, but one which struck me to the core is when people who raised flocks of pigeons would let them out for a spin, so to speak.  The pigeons — a dozen or so (?) — would whir out of their dovecotes and flutter off into the sky in ever distancing gyres.  I would stand on the fourth floor roof of our new reinforced concrete building (the first in that part of the city) and watch them as long as I could.  Usually, however, I would lose track of them after several minutes.  Eventually, the flock would miraculously return and settle down on their perches and in their nests, cooing contentedly.

Those flights were their morning / evening exercise, and the pigeons seemed to revel in their transitory freedom.  It always made me wonder, though, what brought them back (what signals were given to them, how their owners communicated with them), and whether any of them ever strayed and got lost from their mates.

Now we have an AP report documenting one instance where this ostensibly happened — at a very long distance:

"Indian police clear Taiwan pigeon suspected of spying for China:  Avian apprehension occurred when bird discovered with Chinese writing", by Jono Thomson, Taiwan News (2/2/24)

A Taiwanese pigeon suspected of spying for China can once again fly free after Indian police cleared it of wrongdoing following eight months in detention.

AP reported on Thursday (Feb. 2) the pigeon had been released into the wild after being captured in Mumbai in May. Because the bird had rings attached to its legs with what appeared to be Chinese characters, police suspected it was a spy pigeon and detained it.

An investigation at a Mumbai animal hospital revealed the bird was an open-water racing pigeon that had escaped from Taiwan and winged its way to India. After the bird’s origin was determined, it was transferred to an animal welfare group that set it free on Tuesday (Feb. 1).

A spokesperson for the Taiwan Pigeon Racing Association told Taiwan News that it is possible the bird could have flown to India from Taiwan. However, they said there was no way of being sure it was from Taiwan, as Indian police did not release the pigeon’s serial number.

Pigeons have come under policy scrutiny in India before. In 2016 a pigeon was found with a note threatening Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, and in 2020 another suspected of spying was released by police after it flew over the heavily militarized India-Pakistan border.

There are still a lot of imponderables to this story.  For example, I would dearly love to know what the Chinese writing on the pigeon said.  Nonetheless, if the writing was in simplified characters, then it would become a serious matter of national security, and I would sympathize with the Indian police for not releasing the information conveyed by the writing and the serial number of the pigeon.

All of this leads me to think of the "carrier pigeons" I knew about as a child and was deeply impressed by the role they played in conveying information.

The homing pigeon, also called the mail pigeon or 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, meaning that it will generally return to its nest using magnetoreception. Flights as long as 1,800 km (1,100 miles) have been recorded by birds in competitive pigeon racing. Their average flying speed over moderate 965 km (600 miles) distances is around 97 km/h (60 miles per hour) and speeds of up to 160 km/h (100 miles per hour) have been observed in top racers for short 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".[citation needed]*

(Wikipedia)

*I have retained the final Wikipedia notation because many people I know, including myself, are confused about this apparent misconception.

Perhaps it is no accident that this story about the lost pigeon from Taiwan took place in India:

"Why India is Home to the Last Remaining Pigeon Carrier Service:
In Odisha, the practice is a testament to South Asia’s reverence for birdlife", Sadaf Ahsan, The Juggernaut (7/5/23)

Homing pigeons are remarkable, almost unbelievable.  Here's everything (well, at least the basics) you need to know about how to breed, feed, and rear them.

By the way they have a lifespan of 10-12 years and can be retrained for new locations if the owner moves.

A note on ancient carrier pigeons:

In the 5th century BC the first network of pigeon messengers is thought to have been established in Assyria and Persia by Cyrus the Great. In 2000 BC they were carrying messages to warring groups in Mesopotamia. In 53 B.C they carried Hannibal's dispatches. (source)

A personal note concerning carrier pigeons in antiquity.  About a quarter of a century ago, I was visiting archeological sites in Israel and came upon an enormous underground dovecot, with hundreds of nest niches lining the walls all the way to the peak of a high, domed ceiling.  This made me ponder why the ancients wanted to raise so many doves / pigeons.  Then I thought about Noah and the Ark, and the absolutely central role of the dove in that story.  As it is retold here by Chukar of the Santa Monica Bay Audubon Society (8/14/16), it answers many biological and linguistic questions about doves / pigeons and their interactions with humans from early times:

“Noah waited for seven days, and then he released a dove (יוֹנִים – yonah) from the ark to see whether the water on the earth had subsided further. But the dove could find no place to settle, and so she came back to him in the ark, because there was water over the whole surface of the earth. Noah stretched out his hand, caught her and took her into the ark. He waited another seven days and again released the dove from the ark.  She came back to him towards evening with a newly plucked olive leaf in her beak…He waited yet another seven days and released the dove, but she never came back.”   Genesis 8:8-12 New English Bible

Why would Noah choose to send out a dove, of all birds, and what kind of dove was it?  Ornithologists currently recognize 330 species of pigeons and doves grouped into 45 genera, so deciding which dove it was could be daunting. [All 330 species were presumably on the ark, along with the rest of the 10,000+ avian species.] Our story describes Noah’s ark as eventually coming to rest on Mt. Ararat, 16,945 feet high, 14,000-15,000 feet above the surrounding Armenian plain of eastern Turkey. We’ll assume the writer was an ordinary human who used his own experience to fill in details of his story; we’ll also assume that a bird noted was a bird familiar to the writer, and were then extant in the general region of the Middle East. In that region two dove or pigeon species predominate: the Rock Pigeon (Columba livia), also known as park pigeon, homing pigeon, or carrier pigeon, and the European (or Common) Turtle-Dove (Streptopelia turtur). Biblical Hebrew uses two words for these two species: tor (תֹּר), translated as dove or turtledove, and yonah (יוֹנִים), usually translated as pigeon, but also as dove. Occasionally these words occur together, as when Leviticus 5:7 suggests using “two turtle doves or two young pigeons” as sin-offerings. Our cited passage states yonah, so Noah’s “dove” could be of either species.

Of the seventeen species in the Streptopelia genus, the European Turtle-Dove is the most widespread and common, found from the Azores Islands in the west, across northern Africa, Europe, the Mid-East and western Asia to Iran and far-western China. They are widely domesticated by humans, used as food and as caged companions. The “turtle” part of their name – as may also the Hebrew “tor” – refers to their cooing call, which sounds to human ears like the word “turtle.” This widespread impression is recognized in their name in many languages: French – Tourterelle des bois, Dutch – Tortelduif, German – Turteltaube, Swedish – Turturduva, and in the scientific species name, turtur. However, many people refer to this much-admired bird as simply “Turtle“, as did the British when the King James version of the bible was published in 1611. In recent years, and in regions which do not host turtle-doves, bible readers are often mystified by the following passage:

“For lo, the winter is past, the rain is over and gone; the flowers appear on the earth; the time of the singing of birds is come, and the voice of the turtle is heard in our land…”     Song of Solomon 2:11-12 King James Version

Since when does one ever hear a turtle say anything? One doesn’t, and recent translations and updated versions have re-translated the Hebrew tor in this passage from “turtle” to “turtle-dove.”

Why send out a Dove?  All pigeons and doves build nests of twigs. Not very well, I should add. They may be so loosely constructed that one can see the eggs through the bottom of the nest. After a mated pair locate a suitable nest site, frequently a fork in a tree limb, they (sometimes only one) fly off to find twigs to bring back; these may be dead and broken, but living twigs may be preferred for their flexibility. One of the pair may stay to guard the site and suitably arrange returned twigs until the nest is complete. All pigeons and doves are strong and swift flyers, able to quickly cover a lot of area without needing to land. Many species can also find their way home through vast featureless areas.

The Rock Pigeon, whom the Israelites called yonah, has been domesticated for millennia for food, feathers, fun, and not least for its ability to reliably carry messages to its home roost from any distance or direction, despite adverse conditions of weather and light. Historians report that the use of “carrier pigeons” probably began in ancient Persia, and dates to at least 1000 BCE. Phoenician merchants at sea used the pigeon post to send messages home; the Greeks used them to announce results of the Olympic games. Such an instinctive “homing” pigeon, one who seeks and gathers twigs with which to build its nest, would be the perfect animal to recruit for the task of finding and returning living vegetable matter, to indicate the end of a flood and the reemergence of land and vegetation. It could fly for hours, cover a huge area, and reliably return, bringing a live twig if it could find one, or a dead twig if that’s all it could find. Genesis says (in translation) that Noah sent out a “dove,” but in all likelihood, it was not the European Turtle-Dove but the Rock Pigeon, whose biblical Hebrew name yonah, used in this passage, is translated as either pigeon or dove.

The Rock Pigeon nests on barren cliffs, often in arid, confusingly-configured regions, and often had to travel wide and far to find food, water, and nesting material. This constellation of characteristics suggests that they may be the reason the species evolved such a remarkable homing ability.

The selection of the Rock Pigeon for this role in this story, demonstrates that the writer was aware of four things: First, the mere fact of this species’ existence; Second, the bird’s ability to fly fast and far; Third, its natural desire to seek and bring back twigs for the purpose of nest-building; Fourth, its remarkable ability to recall the location of its home roost in the vastness of an unfamiliar and potentially featureless region. The earliest use of the Rock Pigeon as “carrier” pigeon is probably unrecorded, but here we see a suggestion that it was known, at the time of this story, in the Middle East. Because of this biblical passage, doves are now symbols of peace (or the forgiveness of an angry deity) and the olive branch is a symbolic peace-offering.

Linguistic confusion between pigeon and dove remains common today. There is no set rule as to which is which. Typically, larger birds are pigeons, smaller birds are doves. Each of the 45 genera in Columbiformes – with one exception – consists (in English) entirely of pigeons or entirely of doves, never a mixture. The sole exception is the genus Columba (which includes our Rock Pigeon) comprising 36 species, of which three are called “dove,” the rest are “pigeons.” The continuing drive for English avian nomenclatural consistency, including the goal of calling all species in the Columba genus by the name of “pigeon” brought, in 2003, the change from Rock Dove to Rock Pigeon. By it’s size it should be called a pigeon. All it’s closest relatives are called pigeons. The bible (except Noah) calls it a pigeon, park statues everywhere call it a pigeon, messenger services call it a pigeon. But speakers of English long branded it a dove, and, in biblical translation ever since, it has remained a dove.

A final note on carrier pigeons in the modern age, viz., they played a critical role in Israel's 1948 war of independence against the Arab states by delivering vital messages from the battlefield to military headquarters.  (source)

 

Selected readings

[Thanks to AntC]



27 Comments »

  1. Scott P. said,

    February 5, 2024 @ 12:35 pm

    n the 5th century BC the first network of pigeon messengers is thought to have been established in Assyria and Persia by Cyrus the Great. In 2000 BC they were carrying messages to warring groups in Mesopotamia. In 53 B.C they carried Hannibal's dispatches.

    Hannibal died a little before 180 BCE so those must have been some long-lived pigeons.

  2. C Baker said,

    February 5, 2024 @ 1:35 pm

    > Hannibal died a little before 180 BCE so those must have been some long-lived pigeons.

    Not hawks nor cats nor old age will stay those pigeons from the eventual completion of their appointed flight.

  3. Seth said,

    February 5, 2024 @ 1:45 pm

    And down to the modern day:

    "A Standard for the Transmission of IP Datagrams on Avian Carriers"

    https://www.rfc-editor.org/rfc/rfc1149

  4. Alexander Shpilkin said,

    February 5, 2024 @ 1:51 pm

    > Noah waited for seven days, and then he released a dove (יוֹנִים – yonah) from the ark […]

    יוֹנִים yonim is the plural, יוֹנָה yonah is the singular. The Torah / Old Testament says יוֹנָה.

  5. KeithB said,

    February 5, 2024 @ 1:59 pm

    You did not mention that Noah first sent out a raven, and it did the smart thing and did not come back.

    " After forty days Noah opened a window he had made in the ark 7 and sent out a raven, and it kept flying back and forth until the water had dried up from the earth. 8"

  6. Coby said,

    February 5, 2024 @ 2:04 pm

    For some reason the quote from the Santa Monica Audubon Society has יוֺנִים (yonim), the plural, instead of יוֺנָה.

  7. David Marjanović said,

    February 5, 2024 @ 3:49 pm

    This made me ponder why the ancients wanted to raise so many doves / pigeons.

    For their meat, I would guess. That was common practice in Europe until pretty recently.

  8. AntC said,

    February 5, 2024 @ 7:19 pm

    Thank you Prof. Mair for that extensive research.

    Since when does one ever hear a turtle say anything?

    Aha that explains a mystery! In Alice in Wonderland, of course, specifically Chapter 10 (or 9, wikip seems confused) 'The Mock Turtle's Story', ' 'tis the Voice of the Lobster' — another noticeably reticent beast.

    Carroll (or rather qua logician Rev. Dodgson) also features talking in 'What the Tortoise said to Achilles'.

  9. Lasius said,

    February 6, 2024 @ 2:53 am

    For their meat, I would guess.

    Specifically the meat of the older chicks or "squabs", as the meat of flying adults is quite stringy. Which is why the bibilica quote specifically mentions "two young pigeons".

  10. Peter Grubtal said,

    February 6, 2024 @ 3:04 am

    Linguistic confusion between pigeon and dove

    When I was a kid we all thought doves were white, as in the dove of peace, or the dove in catholic iconography representing the holy spirit, and pigeons not.

    German doesn't distinguish between doves and pigeons, both "Tauben".

  11. maidhc said,

    February 6, 2024 @ 4:12 am

    In late medieval England it became popular among the aristocracy to raise pigeons as a source of fresh meat in the winter. To support the pigeons, the peasantry were forbidden to glean the fields. As a result, the common people absolutely hated pigeons. Whenever there was a peasants' uprising, the mob immediately headed for the pigeon cotes.

  12. maidhc said,

    February 6, 2024 @ 4:27 am

    AntC: In the original illustrations for Alice in Wonderland, the Mock Turtle is depicted as a combination of the various ingredients that went into Mock Turtle Soup. Rather ingenious, although I suppose few people nowadays would get the joke.

  13. bks said,

    February 6, 2024 @ 6:52 am

    Rupert Sheldrake expounds "The Homing Pigeon Enigma"
    https://youtu.be/MU4O_luJnEU

  14. Philip Anderson said,

    February 6, 2024 @ 7:14 am

    @Scott P.
    That “note on ancient carrier pigeons“ doesn’t seem reliable. Cyrus the Great died in the C6th century BC, also before the date given.

  15. Victor Mair said,

    February 6, 2024 @ 8:10 am

    @Scott P., Philip Anderson:

    Kashmiri calendar?

    Won't trust them anymore.

  16. Victor Mair said,

    February 6, 2024 @ 8:10 am

    Meir Shalev, A Pigeon and a Boy

    In this Israeli novel, the mail pigeon plays a surreal role, and you also get a snapshot of the Israeli psyche.

    https://www.thriftbooks.com/w/a-pigeon-and-a-boy_meir-shalev/283822/#edition=4579090&idiq=3502876

  17. Peter Taylor said,

    February 6, 2024 @ 9:52 am

    Is it a misconception? That looks to me more like an instance of nerdview, where pigeon fanciers think that everyone else should use "carrier pigeon" as a technical term for "English Carrier pigeon".
    Also, I don't think I've ever heard the term "war pigeon" before. The script for Blackadder Goes Forth episode 2 would seem to support the contention that "carrier pigeon" is a, if not the, standard British term for Columbiformes in this rôle.

  18. Victor Mair said,

    February 6, 2024 @ 10:12 am

    If anybody reads the Meir Shalev book, let us know your reaction. Nili Gold, who told me about the book and gave me her impression, says that it is a short, easy read but a little creepy for her taste.

  19. Robert Coren said,

    February 6, 2024 @ 10:31 am

    In the 1980s-90s (and maybe beyond, I don't remember when they disbanded), there was a quartet of musicians in the Boston area who specialized in medieval- and renaissance-period music of the Sephardim, which was named "The Voice of the Turtle" (taking the phrase form the KJV Bible). The music they sang was mostly if not entirely in the language variously called Ladino or Judeo-Spanish, which bears approximately the same relation to Spanish as Yiddish does to German (from my entirely inexpert point of view). Early on they sold T-shirts with the legend "La Voz de la Tortola"; at some point they realized that they had the wrong turtle, and came out with newer T-shirts that said "La Voz de la Paloma".

  20. Peter Taylor said,

    February 6, 2024 @ 12:40 pm

    @Robert Coren, la tórtola is the turtle dove (or, qualified as la tórtola turca, the collared dove Streptopelia decaocto).

  21. Bloix said,

    February 6, 2024 @ 5:48 pm

    Eight years ago Mark Liberman wrote a post about the Song of Songs passage you quote. It engendered a lively conversation about several topics, including comments – some of them mine – on the turtle/turtledove issue.
    https://languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/?p=23396

    Also, the ancient Hebrews raised doves because they ate them, yes, but also for fertilizer. "A common practice in the Middle East around 1st century BC–1st century AD … was to keep pigeons not only for meat, but for their manure, a fertilizer rich in phosphorus."
    https://www.researchgate.net/publication/51040734_A_brief_history_of_phosphorus_From_the_philosopher%27s_stone_to_nutrient_recovery_and_reuse#pf4

  22. Victor Mair said,

    February 6, 2024 @ 6:26 pm

    @Bloix

    I listed Mark's post under "Selected readings".

    Thanks for the note about fertilizer. I remember that detail from my visit to the ancient dovecote in Israel. The archeologists who took us there mentioned it to us.

  23. Robert Coren said,

    February 7, 2024 @ 10:13 am

    @Peter Taylor: Thanks. It's still true that they changed the shirt.

    Now I'm wondering about the name of the principal island of the British Virgin Islands. There definitely are (or at least used to be) turtles in the waters around there; there are also numerous doves, but I don't think they're technically turtle-doves.

  24. Chris Button said,

    February 7, 2024 @ 11:07 pm

    @ Bloix

    Regarding turtle dove, you might be interested to learn that Laurent Sagart (1999) reconstructs 隹 as *tur and compares it to Latin turtur "dove" that gives English turtle dove.

    It's a nice idea, and he's certainly correct about the onomatopoeic origin, but personally I don't think his reconstruction holds up across the 隹 phonetic series that doesn't support the t- onset. A better onomatopoeia would be "curr", which apparently is an alternative onomatopoeia for "coo" like a dove–and there we also have the onomatopoeic word represented by 鳩.

  25. David Marjanović said,

    February 11, 2024 @ 10:42 am

    A better onomatopoeia would be

    That's too subjective as an argument. Consider cockadoodledoo, cocorico and kikeriki.

  26. Chris Button said,

    February 11, 2024 @ 11:18 pm

    @ David Marjanović

    The point is that "curr" and "tur" are both onomatopoeic, but if a cross-linguistic onomatopoeic comparison is to be made, then "curr" fits the phonology of 隹 better than "tur" because a t- onset in Old Chinese for the word it represents is not really tenable.

  27. Philip Taylor said,

    February 13, 2024 @ 1:30 pm

    Pigeons (or perhaps doves) mysteriously cropped up in a computer typesetting confence in Paris about three decades ago. Simultaneous interpreters [1] were employed to ensure that non-francophones in the audience were not disadvantaged when the presentation was in French (as most were), and on one notable occasion the interpreter said something about "two pigeons". Only because I was also following the presentation in its oral/aural form did I realise that the interpreter had heard deux colombes where the speaker had actually said deux colonnes.

    [1] They worked for only 30 minutes at a time before handing over, the stress involved in simultaneous interpretation being so great.

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