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French history myths: The French army still sends messages by carrier pigeon

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French history myths: The French army still sends messages by carrier pigeon
The French army still has a carrier pigeon unit. Photo by Kenzo TRIBOUILLARD / AFP

Pigeons saved many lives during two world wars, but did you know they are still a vital part of the French military today?

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Myth: The French army still uses carrier pigeons to send messages, for reasons of security.

It's a myth that the French army still relies on carrier pigeons instead of more modern methods of communication - but pigeons remain to this day an official part of the French military.

French carrier pigeons helped the allies greatly during both of the World Wars and during the Franco-Prussian War in the 19th century, when pigeons were used to carry mail from a besieged Paris to the unoccupied parts of the country.

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During World War I a pigeon named Cher Ami saved an encircled American battalion that was being accidentally fired on by the Allies.

As Cher Ami tried to deliver his vital message, the German military spotted him and opened fire. The bird was shot down, but managed to take flight again. Travelling 40km in just 25 minutes, Cher Ami helped save 194 lives even though he lost a leg and was blinded in one eye in the process.

The heroic pigeon received the French Croix de Guerre award and his body is now on display in Washington DC, at the Smithsonian Museum of American History under the exhibit the "Price of Freedom: Americans at War." 

Cher Ami was part of the US Army's pigeon corps (although he was hatched in the UK) but the French army counted at least 15,000 trained carrier pigeons at the start of the war, using them to communicate between Paris and the eastern front.

Pigeons were still used during World War II, but although communications technology has moved on a bit since then, the French pigeon corps remains.

The French Defence Ministry still has a special carrier pigeon unit - one troop of pigeons lives not far outside of Paris, in a 19th-century fortress in Surenes.

120 carrier pigeons - some of whom are the descendants of war heroes like Cher Ami, live and train there. Their role? To step in (or fly in, rather) if telecommunications in France are ever knocked out. 

France is not the only country to continue to recognise pigeons' potential: the Chinese military also reportedly has trained several thousand carrier pigeons as well. 

Pigeons' ability to navigate remains a mystery - some theories exist, such as following certain scents, learning roads and landmarks, and even sensing the electromagnetic field. So far, no single theory has been outright proven.

That being said, France remains one of the few countries to continue to recognise these birds' strategic capabilities.

This article is part of our August series looking at popular myths and misconceptions about French history.

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