Some consider pigeons to
be no better than flying rats; others
consider them to be man's best friend;
most of us pay little attention to them, other than perhaps to cast
an angry thought their way when
something soft and smeary lands on our
windscreen; but spend some time in the
company of Andrew Blechman's Pigeons and you'll never look at the
humble rock dove in the same light
Starting on a high note, Blechman tells of pigeons through the ages, such as the pigeons behind the Reuters communication empire: A German man by the name of Israel Beer Josaphat realized that there was a gap in communications between Brussels and Germany because of a break in the still formative telegraph system. A train took 8 hours to cross the gap but a pigeon carrying the news in tiny bags under its wings could fly it in two; once the news arrived it was retransmitted by telegraph, relaying important news and stockmarket prices 6 hours ahead of the regular channel. Josaphat later renamed himself Julius Reuters.
Blechman goes on to tell of the many pigeons who saved lives in war, such as Cher Ami (Dear Friend) who saved the US Army's 77th Division (later known as the "Lost Battalion") in WWI. The 77th Division was trapped behind enemy lines with severely reduced numbers; but things got much worse when American troops unwittingly unleashed a massive artillery barrage on the remnants of the battalion. A plea for help was sent with one bird but it was immediately shot down by the Germans; a second bird was sent and shot. A third message was attached to the final pigeon, Cher Ami: "Our artillery is dropping a barrage on us. For heaven's sake, stop it!"
As Cher Ami flew away, he was hit by several bullets and plummeted towards the ground, but moments before crashing he managed to spread his wings and started climbing higher and higher out of range. Twenty minutes later he landed at headquarters. Part of his head including one eye had been blown away, his breast was ripped open, but the canister was still hanging from the few tendons remaining of his severed leg - and the barrage stopped. For his courageous persistence, he was awarded the French Croix de Guerre, and was shipped back to the USA in style, where he died from his injuries a year later.
Sadly, Blechman's stories of pigeons through the ages are the high point of his book. Once he enters the present day his narrative gets bogged down by too much first person reporting. Many of the people he introduces us to are fascinating examples of humanity; but he spends too much time on the logistics of how he manages to track down these often illusive characters - up to a point this illustrates the eccentricity of many at the heart of the world of pigeon fancying and racing are, but the sheer level of detail is wearisome after a time.
"The pigeons are the day cleaning crew, and the rats are the night cleaning crew. Without them, we'd die in our own filth." - Bob, a lifelong pigeon fan.
This review was originally published in December 2006, and has been updated for the October 2007 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.
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