The American Pigeon Museum Celebrates a Bird With a Superpower

David Hinckley
6 min readJan 25, 2024

In 1917, British social reformer and animal welfare activist Maria Dickin founded the People’s Dispensary for Sick Animals (PDSA), which provided medical care to animals whose humans could not afford it.

In 1943, enduring her second armed global conflict in a generation, Dickin created a medal to honor animals who provided extraordinary service to the Allied war effort.

Specifically, the bronze medallion would be awarded to animals who displayed “conspicuous gallantry or devotion to duty while serving or associated with any branch of the Armed Forces or Civil Defence Units.” it was known as the Dickin Medal and regarded as the animal equivalent of Britain’s Victoria Cross.

During its original incarnation under Dickin, from December 1943 through July 1949, 54 medallions were awarded.

Eighteen recipients were dogs. Three were horses. One was a cat. The other 32 were pigeons.

That included Kenley Lass, who flew 300 miles in seven hours to deliver the first message from embedded agents in France after the Nazi takeover in 1940. It included Gustav, whose flight back from the Normandy beaches on June 6, 1944, provided Britain with its first report on the D-Day invasion. It included G.I. Joe, who flew 20 miles in 20 minutes to deliver a message credited with saving the lives of at least 100 Allied soldiers. It included White Vision, who flew nine hours against the wind with a message that led to the rescue of the crew in a ditched Allied aircraft.

Ruhr Express with Dickin Medal.

That’s not a bad day’s work for a bird regarded by millions of urban dwellers as simply dirty and annoying. Jeff Goldblum’s Michael character in The Big Chill capsulized that view by casually describing pigeons as “rats with wings.”

It is true that feral urban pigeons have some habits and display some behavior that conflicts with what humans would prefer. If a flock of pigeons spots a potential food source, like popcorn dropped on a sidewalk, they can descend en masse and get pretty noisy about it.

New York pigeons.

But in the larger picture Michael’s characterization is harsh, a point reinforced in a neat brick building on the outskirts of Oklahoma City called The American Pigeon Museum & Library.

Here, pigeons are the good guys.

As historical and educational repositories go, The American Pigeon Museum is not The Louvre or The Met. It is open just 10 hours a week — 1–5 p.m. Fridays, 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Saturday — and at the moment it is closed for the month of January.

While it’s clean, well-ordered, informative and professional, this isn’t an institution richly endowed as the legacy of some robber baron. Founded in 1973 as the American Homing Pigeon Institute, it feels more like a passion project, a celebration of a misunderstood and underappreciated bird with keen intelligence and a remarkable superpower: the internal compass and physical ability to fly home from hundreds or thousands of miles away.

It’s that last trait that led humans to begin domesticating pigeons, apparently some 5,000 years ago. They were employed as messengers.

They were also, full disclosure, sometimes employed as dinner. But it was the messenger role that, in October 1918, saved several hundred members of The Lost Battalion, nine companies of the U.S. Army who were cut off by German forces in France’s Argonne Wood. Fellow Army forces had no idea how to find and save them until Cher Ami, a pigeon, flew in with a message strapped to her back that pinpointed their location. The French awarded Cher Ami the Croix De Guerre for her role in the rescue.

Cher Ami.

Over the course of World War II, Britain’s National Pigeon Service parachuted 16,554 pigeons onto the European continent, from whence they carried encrypted messages back to the U.K.

The American counterpart, the U.S. Army Pigeon Service, or Pigeon Signal Corps, operated from 1917 to 1943 and 1946 to 1957. During World War II, it employed 3,150 human soldiers and 54,000 pigeons — 90 per cent of whose messages got through.

Nor were the internal compasses of pigeons valued by humans only when humans were busy killing each other. In the days before reliable and universal telephones, news organizations like Reuters routinely used pigeons as the fastest way to relay information from distant locations.

Beyond those functional applications, humans have long found the pigeons’ homing instinct fascinating all by itself. Humans had made a sport out of pigeon racing as early as 220 B.C., and today millions of people around the globe raise and train racing pigeons for love and for money.

PETA and other animal rights organizations do not like pigeon racing, calling it a cruel sport in which many birds die and the survivors live in coops or cages. Several countries, states and cities, including Chicago, have banned it.

Perhaps as a result, its popularity has declined in many Western countries — at the same time it has risen in other places, like the Far East.

Pigeon breeders everywhere defend their sport vigorously. They say they treat their birds with care and often develop the kind of bond dramatized in the movie On The Waterfront, where Marlon Brando tells Eva Marie Saint about the intelligence and loyalty of his rooftop pigeons.

Marlon Brando (Terry), Eva Marie Saint (Edie) and pigeon.

There are some 15,000 registered pigeon lofts in the United States, with hundreds of thousands in other countries, and at the top levels the air can also be filled with big money. South Africa holds an annual race with more than a million dollars in prizes, and a Belgian racing pigeon, Armando, was recently sold to a Chinese breeder for $1.4 million.

The passenger pigeon.

For the average civilian pigeon, however, life has always been and remains a challenge. The Pigeon Museum has a display on the passenger pigeon, which was estimated to number about 3.5 billion birds in America in the early 19th century. Then Americans discovered they had a taste for pigeon meat, and that the highly sociable passenger pigeon was easy to trap or kill in large numbers. The last known passenger pigeon, Martha, died in the Cincinnati Zoo on Sept. 1, 1914.

The Pigeon Museum documents all this, as part of the bird’s history. Its wider message feels more upbeat, focusing on how pigeons have integrated and interacted with other living residents of the planet since well before anyone was around to write down any of the details.

In the relatively modern life of the planet, the ancestry of pigeons traces back to the rock dove. Flash back a couple of hundred million years, scientists now believe, and the pigeon’s ancestral family is dinosaurs, including T. Rex. While that clearly suggests significant alterations in size, shape and attitude as millions of years rolled past, it’s fair to say that the pigeon, like many of its fellow birds, is a survivor.

The Pigeon Museum keeps live pigeons for educational demonstrations, and they hint at the range of colors and feathering that can be found among the 352 identified species of pigeons and doves. Those blue-grey pigeons on New York rooftops, their eyes peeled for a fallen crust of pizza below, have a rainbow of cousins.

Pigeon at American Pigeon Museum.
Nun pigeons.
Oriental Frill pigeon.
Jacobin pigeon.

What humans have done with and to pigeons, consistent with what we have done with and to other animals, has played a big role in shaping the modern pigeon world. The American Pigeon Museum provides an impressive look at how pigeons have shaped their own world as well.

(The American Pigeon Museum is at 2300 N.E. 63rd St., Oklahoma City, Oklahoma 73111. Phone 405–478–5155. Website: theamericanpigeonmuseum.org.)

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David Hinckley

David Hinckley wrote for the New York Daily News for 35 years. Now he drives his wife crazy by randomly quoting Bob Dylan and “Casablanca.”