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Thursday 8 December 2016

Homing in on the unsung talents of the pesky pigeon

Ann Fitzgerald

Published 23/02/2016 | 10:17

Pigeons are still used to transmit information.
Pigeons are still used to transmit information.

We recently spent an enjoyable and mildly educational few hours playing a game with the girls associating well-known birds with people in the public eye.

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First off, an easy one. President Michael D is the wise old owl.

For the swan, a tall pale bird that’s elegant in full flight, we couldn’t decide between broadcaster Miriam O’Callaghan and gay rights campaigner Panti.

There were few candidates for the strong, noble, golden eagle. Maybe rugby player Paul O’Connell? Or would he be a bald eagle? Keeping to the rugby theme, Jonathan Sexton, who’s often commended for his darting runs, would be a snipe.

Singer Daniel O’Donnell might be a warbler and boxer Katie Taylor a bantam, having a sweet and gentle nature but able to hold her own in any company.

As for the duck, we considered comedian Brendan O’Carroll’s Mrs Brown due to her waddle and garrulousness but preferred the mother goose, for the way she protects her brood. We ended up allocating the duck to politician Enda Kenny, renowned for its ability to elude its attackers in many ways, swimming, running and flying; maybe even cycling?

Staying with politics,  Alan Kelly might be a stocky bullfinch, Mick Wallace a flamboyant peacock. 

But is there a bird which inspires more starkly opposing emotions than the pigeon? We despise them yet can’t help admiring them, too.

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While crows will wait for an opening before attacking a field of corn, pigeons could make their own opening in the middle of the field and sweep the crop in front of them.

A  few years ago, some homing pigeons pitched up in our calving shed where they have flourished.  Lots of pigeons means lots of pigeon poo. My husband Robin says pigeons make two sounds — the gentle, familiar, coo-coo-cooo and something like he-he-hee when they defecate on you.

On day recently, he went into the shed to get a shovel, keeping a close eye on the pigeons overhead. It turned out that the exact part of the shovel handle he grabbed without looking was plastered with a giant, putrid pigeon poo.

Just consider some of the unflattering language we use about pigeons.

A stool pigeon is a police informer or a person who acts as a decoy, while pigeonholing means assigning someone to a particular category, typically an overly restrictive one. But perhaps the worst indictment of all is how they are the subject of the target sport, clay pigeon shooting, which comes from the time of live-pigeon shooting competitions.

Yet, due to their homing ability and speed, pigeons have long been used to transmit information and they played a vital role in both world wars. One famed WWI individual was a Blue Check hen named Cher Ami.  In her final mission in October 1918, despite being shot, she delivered a crucial message, found in the capsule hanging from a ligament of her shattered leg, The message helped save 194 American soldiers.

During WWII, the Allies used about 250,000 homing pigeons and awarded the Dickin Medal, the highest  decoration for valour given to animals, to 32 pigeons, including the Irish pigeon, Paddy.

Paddy, who was trained by Andrew Hughes of Carnlough, Co. Antrim is the only animal in Ireland to be awarded this medal. Out of the hundreds of pigeons dispatched, he was the fastest to arrive back in England with news of the success of the D-Day invasion. He flew 230 miles and crossed the English Channel in 4 hours 50 minutes. 

While the use of pigeons by the military has been discontinued, it seems they have not gone entirely out of fashion, in terms of transmitting information.

Cancerous tissue

In Brazil, for example, pigeons are used to smuggle cell phones and SIM cards into prisons. In a different vein, I recently came across research from the University of California which showed that, after two weeks training and using food as motivation, pigeons could correctly identify cancerous tissue on mammograms 85pc of the time,  a level which is similar to that of human radiologists.

I’m not sure how impressed a patient would be to see a pigeon waddle in to discuss their medical results. But at least they would be able to make soothing sounds.

So, did we come up with anyone to associate with the pigeon? Perhaps American presidential hopeful Donald Trump?

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