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The U.S. Navy Pigeon Corps: A Look at a Time when Pigeons Saved the World

May 22, 2014       Pigeon Talk

Instructions on Reception,
Care and Training of
Homing Pigeons in Newly
Installed Lofts at
U.S. Navy Air Bases

Here is a public domain document from the archives of the U.S. Navy detailing their former Homing Pigeon program.  It offers a very detailed and interesting glimpse into how they cared for homing pigeons back then as a courier and messenger system for the armed forces.  You can get some tips that can be adapted to your own loft if you are keeping a large sized loft of birds.  The U.S. Navy no longer keeps a homing pigeon  courier system, nut it is interesting to note that superpower China has kept theirs through the years and it may very well be an underrated system for sending timely messages even in modern times.

The U.S. Navy of 1918 had implemented a system for Care and Traiining Messenger Pigeons

Instructions on Reception, Care and Training of Homing Pigeons
 in Newly Installed Lofts at U.S. Navy Air Bases

Navy Department
Office of Naval Operations
Washington, D.C.
March 20, 1918.

(1) Men in charge of, or detailed to, homing pigeon lofts in process of construction and stocking with young birds, should see that the loft is scrupulously clean and prepared for the arrival of the birds. Close communication should be had with the Paymaster, to ascertain the arrival of the birds at the first practicable moment, and to arrange for their immediate transportation to the location of the loft. The birds arriving at the loft will all be young birds, varying from six to eight weeks of age, and ordinarily contained in two crates. These birds will have completed a lengthy trip by railroad, and will probably in a comparatively poor condition, because of delays in travel and possible lack of proper care and attention. Immediately upon the arrival of the birds at the loft, the pigeon attendant should carefully examine and handle each and every bird, separating the healthy birds from the sickly ones. Healthy birds should immediately be placed in a loft where they can obtain plenty of fresh drinking water, and fed sparingly. Sick birds should be isolated and kept by themselves until full recovery, as hereinafter described.

(2) As far as possible, dependent upon weather conditions, the front of the loft should be kept open, so that the birds will have plenty of sunlight and air, and at the same time familiarize themselves, to some extent, with the surrounding country.

(3) In stormy weather, where rain or snow is liable to beat into the loft, the outside upper half of the openings in front may be covered with swinging board flaps, hanging on hooks from the top of the openings, and held out at an angle of 45 degrees therefrom by means of a stick or support, and the lower half covered by a muslin covered frame fitting close in the dowelled front openings.

(4) While cold will not ordinarily injure the birds, it must be remembered that the new arrivals are young birds, not thoroughly inured to hardships, and that their worst enemies are drafts and currents of cold air. To obviate these, it is wise to construct four separate unbleached muslin covered frames, each fitting half of the outside dowelled front window frames, and on extremely cold nights to cover the entire front openings with these frames outside the dowels. Enough air and light will penetrate the muslin, but no drafts.

(5) The birds should be fed early every morning and about 4 or 5 o'clock every afternoon and given as much food as they will clean up in 10 minutes. Never allow food to remain indefinitely on the floor of the loft. It will quickly become soiled from the droppings, and prove a sure source of illness. Never feed birds before a flight, it makes them heavy, logy, inattentive and liable not to return promptly to the loft.

(6) Baths need not be given on extremely cold days; but should be given, if weather permits, every other day.

(7) If sand is available, spread a small quantity on the floor; it will serve to supplement the grit, (which is always kept before the birds to assist digestion,) and at the same time be an aid to cleanliness.

(8) The first morning after the arrival of the birds, dependent on the weather, plenty of fresh water should be available for baths, care being taken to remove such bath water whenever soiled, and replace with fresh water. Never allow water which has been used for bathing to remain in the loft, and birds must not be allowed to drink same.

(9) While the birds are confined, the pigeon attendant becomes familiar with them and gets them used to his presence and to the fact that feed is available at certain definite times. Each time the birds are to be fed, the attendant calls the birds by rattling a tin can in which buckshot or hard peas have been placed. The advantage of the rattling can over whistling is that the rattling can is a constant, never-varying sound, irrespective of who causes it, while the whistle varies with the individual and in case of change of attendants, is liable to upset the birds. Once the birds are used to the sound of the rattle and know that it means food, they will answer to the call quite readily. Never rattle the can without giving some feed to the birds.

(10) During this period the loft attendants make an exact inventory of the birds, giving band numbers, color, special markings and facts as to physical condition of each bird.

(11) An exact record of every occurrence in the loft must be carefully kept, showing all flights, and particulars of each bird's performance; any unusual occurrence must be specially noted, even though not understood, and all reports must be recorded daily with the officer in charge of records.

(12) The following schedule gives approximate time to which it is necessary to confine the birds in the loft to acquaint them with their new surroundings

6 weeks old-4 days
7 weeks old-5 days
8 weeks old-6 days

At the expiration of this period, and at about 3 or 4 o'clock in the afternoon, but not when it is raining or snowing or a fog or mist prevailing, and before the birds have their afternoon feed, the traps of the house should be opened and the birds allowed to go out of the traps on their own initiative. It is fatal to drive the birds out of the loft. If they are driven, they will fly wildly, and without knowledge of the country surrounding the loft, will lose themselves, and fail to return. The normal young bird on being permitted to go through the trap for the first time of its own free will, will perch on the landing board or roof of the pigeon loft and probably make a few short flights in the air, returning to the roof of the loft after each one, venturing further and further away from the loft at each succeeding flight. On the day selected, the birds should be fed rather lightly in the morning and kept rather sharp so as to have their appetites assist in bringing them back to the loft after their first flight in the open air.

(13) On the second day of liberation, the trap is to be opened at about 12 o'clock noon, and the birds allowed to go out of their own free will, remaining outside for perhaps one half an hour and then called in by the rattling can and given a very slight amount of food, just enough to let them know the reason for being called in; another flight of half an hour should be given just before feeding time.

(14) On the third day, the trap is opened before the birds are fed in the morning and they are allowed to go out of their own free will and fly around the loft for perhaps one half hour. On alighting on the roof of the loft they are called in by the feed rattle and again the regular amount of feed is given, as much as they will clean up in 10 minutes. In the afternoon, about 4 or 5 o'clock dependent upon weather conditions, they are allowed another flight, being fed as above, after they are called in to the loft.

(15) Never feed a bird anywhere except in the loft and never allow a bird to alight upon the ground, or on a tree house or building, in fact, anywhere, except on the roof of the loft. Never allow the birds to remain an indefinite time on the roof of the loft, always call them in by the can and give them a few grains of food.

(16) Never liberate a bird in a heavy fog, mist, rain, or snow, unless absolutely necessary. It serves no useful purpose, and may be the means of losing the bird.

(17) After the birds have taken to the wing well, and seem to enjoy their exercise around the loft, flying as it were in one compact body they are then ready for their initial tosses which must be single up at all times, giving each individual bird enough time to locate his own course or direction of flight. For further information see article on training.

(18) Never take a bird which is in poor condition for a flight. Every bird needs all of its strength and feathers to fly properly, and if it is not in such proper condition, it will be unable to return to its home. Unless weather conditions or accident prevent, never carry a bird back to the loft. Always liberate and allow a flight home, reducing the distance, if necessary.

(19) Scrupulous cleanliness is essential in every loft. The perches, nest boxes and floor must be cleaned every day. Water and bath cans should be sterilized. A trench should be dug perhaps 25 feet in the rear of the pigeon loft, into which should be dumped, every day, the cleanings and refuse from the loft. While one attendant is watching the birds outside another should be cleaning the loft and renewing drinking water and bathing water.

(20) All food to the birds should be sifted in a fine mosquito to wire sieve to remove all dust, etc. This sifting should also be dumped in the ditch, care being taken in summer time to keep the refuse covered with dirt, to avoid flies. Watch the food, and see that it is free from taint and mold. Defective grain is a certain forerunner of a full hospital.

(21) Except when the birds are allowed open trap, in the morning and evening, the trap leading outside the loft, should always remain closed permitting entry but not exit of birds.

(22) One of the attendants should always be on the lookout for return of birds after a practice liberation and give a few grains of food to each returning bird as a reward, making note of bird and time of return. In like manner, liberator should note birds released, with exact time and distance to be flown, and on the return to loft, compare record of return and prepare flight record.

(23) A few cardinal points: Each loft attendant should become intimately acquainted with each and every one of his birds, and overcome their fear and timidity. Emphasize the fact that he is their friend; that they will receive food, water and other comforts through him. Watch the birds carefully, both in and out of the loft. Isolate every sick bird, and if not sure of the ailment, consult freely with others. A thoroughly available hospital or sick bay can be easily constructed of an old packing box, 3 or 4 ft. square with the front covered with chicken wire. Raise it off of the ground to avoid rats, cats, etc. and face it where the birds will get all possible sunlight and be protected from drafts, wet and rain. A canvas or muslin flap over the front will protect the birds from cold and rain. Fresh water is the first essential for health and full recovery of the sick birds. Careful and regular feeding and plenty of fresh air and sunlight and the appropriate remedies obtainable from the hospital, will save most of the sick birds. A little tincture of Gentian is an excellent tonic for the birds, a small pinch of it being placed in their drinking water.

(24) The above rules are for the settling of the young pigeons in their new home, and are not intended to contemplate their immediate use by the Division or Military Unit to which they are attached. It will take from three to four weeks of training, as hereinbefore set forth, to thoroughly acquaint the birds with their locality and to make them available for use by the Military Unit.

(25) Particular attention and care must be given to the method of catching, handling, liberating and trapping birds. If it is desired to catch a bird on a perch or board, walk slowly up to it, turning the head slightly in a different direction but watching the bird out of the corner of the eye. Slowly and smoothly raise both hands above the level of the bird and quickly swoop downward, bringing both hands together over the bird. By this downward motion it may be easily caught, even if it flies into the air.

(26) Attached photograph shows the proper method of holding a pigeon in the hand. It should be gently but firmly grasped with the hand, its keel in the palm, with the thumb and fingers encircling the body. The legs should be grasped between the index and second finger. In this way its wings and feet are permanently manacled. Extreme care must be taken not to bend, break, or pull out the flight or tail feathers or to frightened the birds by grasping them too tightly.

(27) Except when necessary, never make any quick movements when with the birds; move slowly and deliberately and never under any circumstances scare a bird in its home loft. Never trick a bird. Under no circumstances should a bird be caught when eating from the attendant's hand.

(28) Never handle a pigeon roughly in the trapping box. It is difficult enough to train a bird to trap quickly and fearlessly without adding to this difficulty by making it trap-shy. One of the most important phases of a bird's training is the trapping. A pigeon that will return and sit on the loft for 5, 10, or sometimes 30 minutes is a most imperfectly trained homer and not a reliable messenger. The utmost speed is desired, in the transmission of a message, and a slow trapping bird is a most unsatisfactory medium of communication. Begin with the first liberation and do all in your power to develop the youngsters into machine-like trappers.

(29) Avoid scaring birds violently from the roof of the loft. If they refuse to fly, gently force them from the roof, but never hurl pieces of board or other missiles at them.

(30) Upon receipt of any new addition to a loft the officer in charge of records shall forward the following information to the Supervisor Naval Reserve Flying Corps, Navy Annex, Washington, D.C.

1st-Number of birds received
2nd-Received from.
3rd-Date Received.
4th-Checked by.

A page in the record book shall then be assigned to each bird, which shall contain the following data: Ring no., Color and sex, Date of Hatch, Breeder, Brief Pedigree and record if flown previously.

(31) Cleanliness in the loft is no less essential than ventilation, particularly if many birds are kept. Therefore the loft should be cleaned out daily and a little fresh gravel or sand should be strewn on the floor after cleaning. Sitting pairs should not be disturbed during this process; neither should nests be disturbed until youngsters are at least two weeks old when nests may be changed frequently to insure cleanliness. Grit pans should then be replenished with a supply of fresh grit, and drinking pans thoroughly cleansed and refilled with fresh water. It is desirable to perform the above duties while the birds are on the wing exercising.

(32) Youngsters should be banded about the seventh day on the right leg and the band should be placed so that the numbers will read upside down when the foot is on the floor. For example, put the top of the number nearest the ankle. An unrung youngster will indicate lack of attention and the attendant will be given a demerit.

(33) Mated pairs taking active part in delivering messages should only be allowed to raise one youngster in each nest, and great care should be taken so that one of the birds remain at home while the other is on a journey. Birds mated together that have produced young of meritorious value for carrying messages must be kept entirely for that purpose.

(34) As soon as the birds have taken to the wing well and seem to enjoy their exercise, flying in one compact body for miles around the loft, they may be put in the training baskets and liberated single toss,-one, two, four, six, eight, ten, twelve, fifteen, twenty, thirty, forty and fifty miles. The shorter distances, say up to and including fifteen miles can be indulged every day; beyond that distance and up to fifty miles every second day; and from fifty to one hundred miles every third day. Birds should by all means be liberated in the forenoon while undergoing this initial training and must not be fed until they return from their journey and enter the loft, when a small quantity of hemp or canary seed may be given.

(35) While the birds are not engaged in actual training flights, weather permitting, they must be exercised at least twice daily, allowing them to fly until they seem satisfied, and must not be disturbed after alighting on the loft or trap until every bird enters therein.

(36) The attendant in charge must at all times keep a sharp lookout for birds returning with a message while other birds are exercising. Otherwise the bird carrying some important message may mingle with the rest of the flock on returning and enter with the others unobserved. To avoid such an incident birds should be counted on leaving and entering the loft.

(37) Great care should be exercised on all birds retuning from a journey and under no consideration should they be given liberty for exercise until they are again in the proper condition for same. This is absolutely necessary, as a bird in a tired condition will not submit to the work and will bring the other birds down with him, causing a great inconvenience to the trainer.

(38) If possible birds should always be trained in the direction they will be expected to carry their messages. Should it become necessary, have certain birds trained from the different directions, as a bird trained over the same course can be depended on to return with a greater amount of accuracy.

(39) Birds feeding young should not be detailed to long journeys until they disgorge the milky substance formed in their crops at that period, which takes from four to five days after the young are hatched.

(40) It is advisable that at least two birds should be entrusted to deliver the same message, and if important, three should be used. They should not be liberated together but at intervals of at least ten minutes. Great care should also be taken, should a strange bird enter the loft, to have the message forwarded to the proper authority.

(41) Provisions should be made if possible, with the officer in charge of air craft to instruct all men who may take pigeons on a journey to attach the following information in connection with the message: Time of liberation, approximate place and approximate distance. Blanks shall be provided for this purpose, together with a suitable message holder.

(42) The following feed formula has been adopted and shall be strictly adhered to:

50% Canada Peas
25% Argentine Corn
15% Kaffir Corn or Milo Maize
10% Whole Rice

Small quantities of hemp and canary seed must be fed the birds during the Moulting and Breeding season, at least once each day, also to birds returning from a journey. It is absolutely necessary that a good supply of grit must at all times be before the birds, as this enables them to digest their food and insures good health, which is necessary at all times.

(43) The following serial and register numbers have been adopted by the U.S.N.R.F. for pigeon bands to be used on all pigeons at the different Naval Air Stations in the U.S.A., and it is requested that all attendants become familiar with same in order to locate immediately the proper headquarters for stray messages.

Serial Number     Loft Designation Letter     Location of Loft
N.A.S.      18....................P.F.      Pensacola, Florida
N.A.S.      18....................H.R.     Hampton Roads, Va.
N.A.S.      18....................S.D.     San Diego, Cal.
N.A.S.      18....................M.F.     Miami, Florida
N.A.S.      18....................K.W.     Key West, Florida
N.A.S.      18....................C.M.     Cape May, N.J.
N.A.S.      18....................M.L.I.    Montauk, L.I., N.Y.
N.A.S.      18....................R.L.I.     Rockaway, L.I., N.Y.
N.A.S.      18....................C.H.      Chatham, Mass.
N.A.S.      18....................B.S.      Bay Shore, L.I., N.Y.

In addition to the identification band on each pigeon's right leg, every pigeon should be stamped on the fourth flight feather of the right wing, and the sixth flight feather of the left wing. This marking to be done by means of the rubber stamps and ink pads provided for that purpose.

(44) The following cards will be furnished to enable attendants to keep complete daily record of every bird. Same must be turned in daily to the Officer in Charge of Records.

 Band No.__________________________________
 Time shipped from loft________________________
 In charge of________________________________
 Time of liberation____________________________
 Approximate place___________________________
 Approximate distance_________________________
 Time arrived at loft___________________________
 Weather conditions___________________________
 Weather conditions___________________________

Daily Breeding Report
Must be turned in daily to the Officer in Charge of Records.
 Band No._________________________________
 Band No. of Sire____________________________
 Band No. of Dam___________________________
 General Remarks____________________________

(45) Forms like the following shall also be provided in order to take a general inventory on the first of every month.

Monthly Loft Inventory
To be turned in on the first day of every month to the Officer in Charge of Records.

 Number of breeders in loft_________________________________
 Number of trained birds in loft______________________________
 Number of untrained birds in loft____________________________
 Number of birds out for immediate duty which would otherwise be  mentioned under trained birds_______________________________
 Number of sick birds in hospital_____________________________
 Total number of birds in loft________________________________

 Canada Peas___________________________________________
 Argentine Corn_________________________________________
 Kaffir Corn or Milo Maize_________________________________
 Hemp Seed____________________________________________
 Canary Seed___________________________________________
 All other assortments not mentioned above____________________
 Total amount___________________________________________

(46) A monthly classification of birds shall be effected in the following order. This is absolutely essential as it will be necessary on special occasions to sent out the very best obtainable.

Class A-1
Will consist of birds that have delivered all the messages entrusted to them within a reasonable time, weather conditions considered.

Class A-2
Will consist of birds that have delivered 75% of their messages within a reasonable time, weather conditions considered.

Class A-3
Will consist of birds that have delivered 50% of their messages within a reasonable time, weather conditions considered.

Class A-4
Will consist of birds that have delivered 25% of their messages within a reasonable time, weather conditions considered.

Class A-5
Will consist of all untrained birds and mated pairs that have proven their worth in producing good reliable young.

No bird should be tolerated in the loft if, after the expiration of two years' training it has not acquired to Class A-3.

Photograph shows the proper method of holding a pigeon in the hand. It should be gently but firmly grasped with the hand, its keel in the palm, with the thumb and fingers encircling the body. The legs should be grasped between the index and second finger. In this way its wings and feet are permanently manacled. Extreme care must be taken not to bend, break, or pull out the flight or tail feathers or to frightened the birds by grasping them too tightly.

There you have it.  The U.S. Navy of 1918 put together an impressive and systematic homing pigeon breeding program and implemented a method of grading birds' efficiency as messengers even.  Although racing systems and breeding systems are more specialized because of racing as sport, the U.S. Navy's defunct  homing pigeon program still can teach us how to set up a loft and keep birds if we wanted to go off the grid with homing pigeons as our courier and messenger system.

Until our next Pigeon Racing feature, keep
checking REACH-UNLIMITED.COM's section,

Pigeon Talk for the latest and the most interesting
reading on the Pinoy's love pigeons!



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