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The Legal History of Pigeons

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The following is a guest post by Annie Ross, an intern with the Digital Resources Division of the Law Library of Congress. She is a current student of political science and international studies at Northwestern University.

The pigeon is often thought of as nothing more than a city pest. Given their penchant for carrying germs and disease, harassing people for crumbs, and covering statues with their droppings, pigeons may very well earn this reputation.

You may be surprised to learn, then, that the pigeon has also been an invaluable resource for the U.S. and many other countries. This blog post is dedicated to highlighting the ways in which two breeds of this unassuming bird, specifically, the homing pigeon and the passenger pigeon, have affected and been affected by legislation ranging from military policy to federal conservation laws.

A black and white photo of pigeons being released by a group of men at the U.S. Capitol.
Sen. Royal S. Copeland, left, and Rep. Anning S. Prall of N.Y. releasing 2 of the fastest homing pigeons in the world from the plaza in front of the U.S. Capitol. Harris & Ewing, photographer, 1924. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division. //

The Homing Pigeon
The homing pigeon, popularly known as the messenger pigeon, has been used for centuries across the world for a variety of messaging purposes, perhaps the most notable being war communication. This breed of pigeon is domesticated and evolutionarily programmed to fly back “home” (hence the name “homing pigeon”), allowing them to serve as effective messengers. For expansive kingdoms, such as that of the ancient Egyptians, pigeon post was especially handy.

While pigeons were used in warfare prior to the 20th century, it was World War I and World War II that sparked worldwide legislation to protect homing pigeons in relation to their use as wartime communicators. Passed in 1918, a U.S. federal law (40 Stat. 533) prohibited entrapping and killing any homing pigeon owned by the U.S. This policy remained on the books in a few different forms until it was finally repealed in 1990.

A seated man in uniform interacting with pigeons in cages at a Naval Air Station.  A black and white photo.
Pigeons for McMillan Expedition at Naval Air Station. May 22, 1925. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division. //

The U.S. was not the only country to protect homing pigeons by law during the 2oth century. From Great Britain to New Zealand to Portugal, laws aimed at protecting carrier pigeons were passed as the world became ravaged by war. While many of these acts have been repealed in the years since the second world war, a few, such as one in South Australia, still remain in force.

In 1917, a unit of the military under the U.S. Signal Corps was officially authorized to train and manage homing pigeons for wartime purposes, wielding over 50,000 pigeons for WWII alone. While homing pigeons were typically used to transport short dispatches to troops behind enemy lines, they were also later equipped with small cameras to capture key images of enemy positions.

A black and white photo of hands holding a pigeon with wings spread to show its U.S. Army identifier.
Showing how the pigeons are part of the U.S. Army. They too have to have their identification tag with them and at their death they must be accounted for and reported with the probable cause. Fort Lucy, France. United States Army, Signal Corps, photographer, 1918. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division. //

Some pigeons even received special recognition for their work. Cher Ami, a U.S. Signal Corps homing pigeon, was awarded a French military honor, the Croix de Guerre with Palm, for her heroic flight in France during WWI. Cher delivered a crucial message despite being shot in the chest and leg, flying 25 miles in 25 minutes and relieving an Allied unit of nearly 200 men in doing so.

The Passenger Pigeon
While 1914 brought about the increased employment of homing pigeons to save human lives in warfare, the year also spelled doom for the passenger pigeon, whose human-led extinction was formalized when the last known member of the species, Martha, died at the Cincinnati Zoo.

Unlike the homing pigeon, passenger pigeons were utilized for their meat in the U.S. The lack of federal legislation and absence of any substantial state laws that regulated hunting meant that passenger pigeons could be hunted with little restraint up until the 20th century, an activity that was only encouraged by their ample numbers in the U.S. It is estimated that passenger pigeons once made up anywhere from 25-40% of the entire bird population in the U.S., causing onlookers to remark how the migratory birds would “darken the sun with their flights,” and state legislatures to dismiss the need to protect the passenger pigeon until it was far too late.

A series of consecutive black and white photos of a pigeon in flight.
Animal locomotion. Electro-photograph investigation showing a series of consecutive images of a pigeon in flight. Eadweard Muybridge, photographer, 1887. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division. //

Pennsylvania became one of the first and only states to pass laws in a delayed attempt to protect the passenger pigeon. In 1875, Pennsylvania’s General Assembly announced that non-residents would be required to purchase a license to trap passenger pigeons on their nesting grounds. Michigan followed suit by banning the hunting of passenger pigeons altogether in 1898, and several large organizations, such as the Cincinnati Zoo, promised monetary rewards for anyone who could find and offer up a live passenger pigeon.

On the federal level, the impending extinction of the passenger pigeon inspired the passage of conservation legislation to prevent similar future occurrences with other species.

The Lacey Act of 1900 (31 Stat. 187) was the first federal wildlife conservation law to be passed in the U.S., focusing primarily on protecting wild birds from poaching and later expanding to include a wide variety of animals and plants under its protective jurisdiction. The Weeks-McLean Law (37 Stat. 847) was passed in 1913 as a stronger version of the Lacey Act, meant to prevent the hunting and interstate marketing of migratory birds. This was replaced in 1918 by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act (40 Stat. 755), which establishes bolstered protections for birds that migrate between the U.S. and various other countries to this day.

A large group of blackbirds taking off from a wheat field.
Dozens of blackbirds take flight at the approach of a human in a field full of seed following fall harvest near the town of Gillett in southeast Arkansas. Carol M. Highsmith, photographer, 2020. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division. //

Three years after the passage of the Lacey Act, President Theodore Roosevelt established the first federal bird reservation, aimed at protecting the brown pelican from a similar fate of overhunting. The brown pelican, along with thousands of other endangered species, was further protected by the passage of the Endangered Species Act in 1973, statute that establishes guidelines for the creation of endangered species lists and decrees the protection of those included on the lists.

The extinction of the passenger pigeon is certainly not the sole motivator for the appearance of federal wildlife conservation legislation in the 20th century, but it is widely acknowledged that its visible decline played a large role in motivating the federal government to act.

Hopefully, this blog post has given you a new sense of appreciation for the bird family Columbidae and the significant role it played in military and conservation policies. The Library of Congress has helpful research guides both for pigeons in war and passenger pigeons composed of historic newspaper articles that cover the topic.

Comments (2)

  1. An interesting article but one that suffes from the rather misleading claim at the start, ‘given the penchant fir carrying germs and disease’.

    This will just reinforce the inaccurate opinion that pigeons pose a great public hearty risk which is totally ignorant with no scientific proof.

  2. An interesting article but one that suffers from the rather misleading claim at the start, ‘given the penchant for carrying germs and disease’.

    This will just reinforce the inaccurate opinion that pigeons pose a great public health risk which is totally ignorant with no scientific proof.

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