Yes, carrier pigeons are still a thing. And in one region of India, they remain an important form of backup communication in case of natural disaster.
According to reporting from The Guardian, Odisha State is the only place left in the world with a functioning carrier pigeon service. The police there have about 150 pigeons, which have the ability to connect the remote region with other towns and police stations within a 500-mile radius. The birds deliver messages in tiny tubes strapped to their feet. Even today, The Guardian reports, the messages are inscribed on onion paper.
Some people in Odisha State scoff at the idea of funding and training a team of 150 pigeons. Indeed, most people in the US talk about carrier pigeon messaging in the same way they talk about smoke signals: comically antiquated. But the Odisha police argue that the pigeons are an important tradition — and an important backup in case of disaster.
In the 1980s and 90s, for example, floods and storms swept through the region on multiple occasions, knocking out other forms of communication. The police pigeon force allowed local authorities to call for help and mobilize rescues. According to the Odisha Police website, the pigeons have been used in 25 state-level operations to date.
Interestingly, local authorities also monitor for spy pigeons, which aren’t unheard of in India. Over the past few years, a couple of suspect spy pigeons have been captured in Odisha. The first was determined to be a pet pigeon that had gotten a bit lost. The band on its leg turned out to contain ID numbers, rather than secret codes intended for espionage. The second is being investigated now, reports Indian Express.
For centuries, scientists weren’t exactly sure where carrier pigeons got their incredible navigational abilities. Today, it’s understood that they’re able to key into the earth’s magnetic field. Between that and the direction of the sun, they’re able to determine the direction of their home roost. Even if they’re released hundreds of miles away, they’ll be able to find home — and deliver any requisite messages to that location. They can also fly more than 50 miles per hour, as long as there aren’t any severe storms.
Odisha’s birds, which are mostly Belgian homing pigeons, are trained from an early age. This helps them hone their navigational ability and build accurate mental maps of the regions in which they live. According to the Times of India, the pigeons begin training when they’re just six weeks old. They’re dispatched across small distances at first, then trained on longer and longer distances until they have an accurate mental picture of the terrain. From then on, they retain their navigational abilities for years.
Right now, Odisha’s police pigeons are used primarily for ceremonial purposes. But they’re extremely popular with the public, which means they’ll likely remain funded and protected as a cultural tradition for years to come.
Elsewhere in India, other animals are being trained for other important state functions. In the north, for example, police are training German shepherds to protect cheetahs from poachers.