From their humble beginnings along the rocky cliff sides of Africa and Asia some 20 million years ago, pigeons can now by found pretty much anywhere there´s a statue being erected or sandwich being eaten -- though long before we they were merely pests, they served a vital purpose that has evidently not been lost. It was recently revealed that China plans to increase its military spending 12.7 percent, but evidently not all that money will go towards tanks and fighter jets. According to China Central Television, the People's Liberation Army will soon be training 10,000 pigeons to act as couriers in the event that traditional communication equipment fails.Humans first began domesticating pigeons around 5,000 to 10,000 years ago -- at first for food and to use their feathers, but later as carriers, taking advantage of their superb homing abilities to deliver messages over long distances. They were ideal couriers throughout the Ancient world, like in Greece where they reported the winners of the first Olympic Games.
The opportunity to employ pigeons for military purposes was certainly not lost on some of the best military minds throughout the ages. Even Julius Caesar had occasion to use pigeons to send a receive strategic messages across the front line. This tradition carried on through to the wars of the 20th century, with a few instances of birds being honored for their contribution to the military effort. Pigeons are largely credited for opening up communications with Europe prior to the invasion of Normandy during WWII.
But as technologies improved, with things like the radio, and more recently the internet, it seemed that our trusty feathered couriers could enjoy a bit of retirement from service -- that is, until the Chinese military began thinking about a 'worst-case' where these modern inventions fall short.
A report from The Metro elaborates on China Central Television´s announcement regarding the new pigeon recruits:
Training for the flock is believed to be under way in a central Chinese city. The bird army could be called to arms in the event of a mass breakdown in communication systems, helping to deliver vital messages.
The winged soldiers will also be dispatched on military missions between border forces.
CCTV's air force expert Chen Hong said: 'In modern warfare, the pigeon is indispensable.'
Chen Chuntao, the officer in charge of the pigeon force, stated that the birds were the 'most practical and effective short and medium distance tool for communications if there is electromagnetic interference or a collapse in our signals.'
If the strategic move seems like an almost comical technological about-face, it may be because we've grown a bit overconfident in our recent advances in communications -- which, history has shown in varying degrees, is not impervious to problems of their own. China, in placing the order for more messenger pigeons to join the military service, is actually making quite a remarkable gesture towards inherent superiority of the natural world in a field that we humans have largely thought ourselves unrivaled.
The unyielding forces nature count their time not in decades or centuries, but rather in milenia, and we would all be wise to consider the species therein 'indispensable' as a general rule. Pigeons, like most of our cohabitants on planet Earth, have histories stretching back much further than our own -- and with a murky future where such military build-ups are still thought to be necessary, chances are they'll be around a lot longer, too.
In the meantime, however, they'll be happy just waiting for us to drop a bit of our sandwiches before they deficate on statues of our beloved political and military figures.