A Message with Wings

The original form of Tweeting

I’m home for the holidays and asked my history-loving father to recommend some books on WWI.
I should have known better. Our taste in books is very different. Our methods of information-intake and communication-style are very different.

He presented me with 3 books and halfway through chapter four of “A Storm in Flanders: Tragedy and Triumph on the Western Front,” I was no closer to understanding what I’d read. The excess of minute details made me cross-eyed.
I next turned to “Gallipoli” and after struggling turned to “The Somme: Heroism and Horror in the First World War.”
I was about to give up on this book as well, began flipping through the pages at random, and came across an interesting detail: There were over 100,000 carrier pigeons used in WWI. And they apparently rocked at their jobs since they performed with 95% accuracy of message delivery.

This interested me, especially since I recently joined Twitter (our very own contemporary bird-themed method of delivering small messages) which I trash talked for years, but am now loving.

After doing a little research, I came across Cher Ami (French translation: Dear Friend) who is ranked as TIME magazines #4 most heroic animal.

In 1918 a group of 200 Americans were trapped by Germans behind a hill in France. They were down to one last carrier pigeon, Cher Ami, and attached a note to his leg. Using less than 140 characters the note said:  We are along the road parallel to 276.4. Our own artillery is dropping a barrage directly on us. For heaven’s sake, stop it.
As Cher Ami lifted off he was attacked by German gunfire, but managed to fly the 25miles in 25minutes. When he reached his coop (and successfully delivered his message/saved the 200 men) he had lost an eye, been shot in the chest, and had one leg severed.
Our Dear Friend became a celebrity, was awarded the French Croix de Guerre medal, and was personally seen off to the US by General John Pershing.
Cher Ami died the following year and is currently preserved in the National Museum of American History (Smithsonian) in D.C. where he can be seen with his medal.

I feel bad I’d never heard of Cher Ami until now. And his symbolism of “not giving up”  resulted in me feeling bad I gave up on all 3 books my father recommended. I was once again reminded of our contrasting communication styles. These cyclical epiphanies tend to occur around the holidays. We are reminded of how little we know about the people & world around us. We are reminded of how hungry we are to connect & understand.
But because of the books he gave me, I discovered a simple and lovely story. Which was exactly what I was hoping for when I asked him for recommendations.
I’ve yet to tell him any of this.
Maybe someday I’ll release a carrier pigeon into the sky, with a message attached to his leg, telling my father all about Cher Ami.





  • Brett says:

    Great post! While working on a bird book a while back, I read about these so-called war pigeons (that is a great band name just waiting to happen), and I was surprised to see how often these birds were employed (and how effective they were).

    Even more bizarrely, in WWI, the Germans developed anti-pigeon countermeasures: hawks. So not only were these pigeons flying into a war zone, they had their own (feathery) version of anti-aircraft fire.

    On a lighter note: A couple years back, a South African marketing company hosted a “race” between a messenger pigeon (named Winston) and the local internet company. The race was to send four gigs of data about 40 miles. The pigeon won, and handily.


  • Shira Richman says:

    Cathie, this is a beautiful and hilarious post. I absolutely love it.

  • Melissa says:

    This is mostly irrelevant and only tangentially related, but I saw a headline yesterday that they’ve discovered pigeons can do higher math. Thanks for making my brain notice pigeon-related news :)

  • Monet says:

    I’ve always wanted a carrier pigeon and a friend to send messages via said pigeon to…could that be you?

    I enjoyed this post because I am often learning or extrapolating completely different things from books or articles that people recommend to me for a specific reason. Perspective is funny and exciting that way. I think it’s okay that you and your father aren’t necessarily interested in the same kinds of writing but clearly you’ve internalized that and come to an amazing conclusion about human nature. Gotta thank him for that, huh.

  • Leyna Krow says:

    I keep thinking about joining Twitter just so I can participate in you & Monet’s hilarious exchanges (which I currently only stalk via the WS account). But maybe we could all just get pigeons instead? Plus, I would like to have a pet.

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