We live in an age where even having to use a phone that is plugged into a wall is considered archaic. So think for a moment of a time when vital communication betwixt humans relied heavily on a critter whose guano was also its calling card.

That is, when it literally wasn’t delivering you a card tied to its leg with its contact information on it.

Yes, the carrier pigeon-sometimes called a homing pigeon. We might never be able to train enough of them to keep up with the hundreds of billions of emails we currently see the need to send every day, and for a lot of comedy-loving folk the creature (or at least its cousin, the lowly street pigeon) is still known more for being a classic Dilbert punchline. (“Accept that some days you are the pigeon and some days the statue.”)

The raven might steal the delivery thunder on Game of Thrones, but in reality pigeons, with messages affixed to their legs, are the bird to go to when you require important news to be delivered as quickly as possible and aren’t needing to feed hundreds of wedding guests, Thrones-style.

Carrier pigeons really only want to fly home

How a carrier pigeon actually makes a delivery is fairly simple-it just flies home. It would be up to whoever might need something sent back to home soil to get the bird where it needed to be, but from there the pigeon’s speed and remarkable homing instinct could take over. Chock it up to their magnetoreception abilities, and using that to instinctually align and orient themselves to certain magnetic fields.

An early example could be found with the first Olympic Games held in 776 BC, and every athlete who took part in the Games bringing a pigeon with them. If they won their event, it would be their bird released to deliver the news back to their village. The Romans would also use pigeons to get word of the results of chariot races to owners.

Genghis Khan loved pigeons in life, but we’re not sure how’d he react to their treatment of his statues. Photo: Flickr/Mario Carvajal

From Genghis Khan to cocaine

Genghis Khan, the self-described “flail of God” was a big fan of homing pigeons, and used them to establish a communications network across Eastern Europe and Asia. Considering some of the extreme territories Khan’s armies found themselves in, having a delivery system for messages that wasn’t entirely grounded proved to be a major tactical advantage for he and his men. Jump ahead to modern times, and in the past five years law enforcement officials have busted nefarious pigeons attempting to fly not only marijuana and cocaine over prison walls but sim cards for cell phones as well. Of course to be fair to the birds they were only doing what their scheming human masters were telling them to do.

Pigeons were a major communications advantage during WWI and WWII.

Pigeons during wartime

Some of the most celebrated carrier pigeons are from the World War I and World War II eras, when wartime conditions made telecommunications impossible in certain circumstances. The US Army Signal Corps had a 600-bird pigeon flock at its beck and call for making sure ground units in WWI could receive vital instructions regardless of their surroundings. Turns out that besides being smart, pigeons were also almost impossible to shoot down. One pigeon, Cher Ami, is credited with saving the lives of 200 trapped US soldiers when it flew a message-a message alerting other units of the mens’ position and the trap they found themselves in-through a hail of German gunfire that almost shot the leg his cargo was attached to clean off. Despite temporarily being knocked from the sky it carried on and flew 25 miles in 25 minutes. The message was delivered, and the troops were safe behind American lines shortly after as a result.

Cher Ami was honourably stuffed for his efforts during wartime.

Not to be outdone, in 1943 the aptly named G.I. Joe stepped up when efforts to call off a scheduled U.S. bombing run on the German-occupied city of Colvi Vecchia failed. British troops had gained access to the Italian city quicker than anticipated when German soldiers made a hastier-than-expected retreat, and 1000 of them were right in the line of upcoming U.S. fire. Joe was sent to the skies with a message alerting Ally troops of the new set of circumstances, and after flying 20 miles in 20 minutes his message was delivered just as planes were readying for take-off. His completed flight added to the 98% success rate carrier pigeons had during WWII.

G.I. Joe is the bird in this photo, Old Sarge is holding him. That sounds backwards to us.

Carrier pigeons are still being used today

So, in Game of Thrones ravens get the glory, but in real life G.I. Joe was awarded the Dickin Medal of Gallantry, while Cher Ami was honoured with the French Croix de Guerre. These feathered delivery options were still being used during the Gulf War as well-turns out you can’t jam a pigeon. This day and age the services of homing pigeons might not be as in-demand, but in 2009 at least one of them managed to deliver 4GB worth of data faster than it could be streamed online; one hour for the pigeon, almost two hours for the Internet. And in Colorado, Rocky Mountain Adventures still uses pigeons outfitted with lycra backpacks to fly film from rafters’ river excursions anywhere from 20-40 miles (32-64 kilometres) to their home base to be processed so that pictures can be ready for participants as soon as they return from their excursion.  You almost have to see it to believe it…