It's a story of sacrifice. A story of unsung heroism. It's the story of the humble pigeon — perhaps the only bird in the world at once so reviled and so revered.
The American Pigeon Museum and Library in Oklahoma City opened earlier this month to pay homage to, in its supporters' opinion, the misunderstood bird.
Ubiquitous in urban landscapes, the cooing, waddling, pooing birds developed a reputation. Annoying. Stupid. Filthy. Flying rats.
The true story of the pigeon, the one the museum hopes to put forth, is one of beautiful biodiversity, unmatched intelligence and a close history with mankind spanning thousands of years.
Here are 11 facts about the pigeon.
1. The pigeon species is remarkably diverse.
More than 300 breeds of pigeons exist today, including fancy pigeons, like the Frillback, a gray pigeon with curly feathers. Other fancy pigeons — which are bred and shown like purebred dogs — include the multicolored Cauchois and the Indian fantail, so named for its feather arrangement. Then there is the homing pigeon, also called a messenger or carrier pigeon. These birds are used in pigeon races. The white doves released at weddings are homing pigeons.
2. There is an ambitious effort to bring back an extinct breed of pigeon, the passenger pigeon.
The ill-fated passenger pigeon inhabited North America's forests, but European settlers hunted the birds and destroyed their habitat. By 1914, the passenger was extinct. Now, in an effort called “Revive & Restore,” evolutionary biologists, leading geneticists, ornithologists and passenger pigeon expert Ben Novak are extracting genetic code from species of the bird displayed in museums. The hope is the genetic code can be inscribed in the passenger's closest living relative, a breed called the band-tailed pigeon.
3. Pigeon is French for dove.
4. Pigeons have been used in warfare for thousands of years, including Cher Ami, a pigeon credited with saving almost 200 American soldiers in World War I.
It was late September 1918 during the massive Meuse-Argonne Offensive in northern France when 500 American soldiers found themselves trapped on a hill, surrounded by Germans. Making matters worse, American artillery, unaware of the lost battalion's location, rained shells on the group. Within a day, only about 200 Americans remained alive. Desperate, the group released two carrier pigeons in search of help. Both were shot down by Germans. A major then released Cher Ami, who flew 25 miles in 25 minutes to reach Allied lines. The bird arrived shot through the breast and missing an eye and a portion of a leg, from which the message dangled. Almost a million carrier pigeons served during the two world wars and are credited with saving thousands of lives. Cher Ami is on display at the National Museum of American History in Washington.