Every morning the pink breasted doves are waiting for me and their breakfast at the top of the steps, cooing like pigeons, and many mornings their cooing makes me think of Cher Ami.
Cher Ami, a black checker cock, was one of six hundred homing pigeons British bird fanciers had given to the American Army when they arrived to fight in the last six months of World War One. Trained pigeons were an indispensable part of warfare then. Cher Ami won fame when he became the last of the pigeons left with a doomed battalion fighting in the Argonne forest. Their commander, a hero named Whittlesey, had warned that the plan was a disaster before they began, but no-one was game to take on General Pershing and argue it with him. So as Whittlesey had feared, the battalion was surrounded by the Germans. When he sent a pigeon bringing their position to HQ, US artillery came to their rescue and began pounding the Germans surrounding the trapped men. Disaster – they were actually shelling the trapped men.
Whittlesey had one pigeon, Cher Ami, left out of the eight he’d started with, so he sent a message: “Our own artillery is dropping barrages directly on us. For heaven’s sake stop it”. After a few false starts, Cher Ami took off, and the Germans tried to shoot him down. He circled overhead before setting off through a storm of German shrapnel. Once he staggered and fluttered helplessly before gathering himself together and continuing his flight. One leg was shot off, but he continued on. Somehow he got back to HQ, dropping like a stone onto his left breast. He staggered on one bloody leg to the trainer who caught him. The capsule bearing the precious message hung by the ligaments of the wounded leg, and he had been shot through the breast bone as well.
Thanks to him, the artillery barrage was lifted and lives saved, though the heroes in the pocket still had several more dreadful days trapped, until un-aided by their own side, a handful of survivors made it safely out. Heroic Cher Ami lived for another year, was stuffed and now resides at the Smithsonian museum.
Human beings (not homo sapiens) have used pigeons for their purposes for some thousands of years. By crossing breeds, they’ve evolved fast pigeons who can do roughly 60 miles per hour, fast ones up to 110 miles per hour. Paul Reuter of the famous news agency used them, a pigeon took the news of Waterloo from Brussels to Britain, and even in the eighties, pigeons were being used to carry blood samples to and fro from two Southern English hospitals. Here in New Zealand an enterprising Kiwi founded a pigeon- post from Great Barrier Island to Auckland back in 1897.
Though people assume it’s just instinct that gets them back home, during World War One, while the French were pushing back the Germans from the Marne, they took the pigeon lofts forward with them, yet when the birds returned from Paris they always managed to find their lofts, even though they had been moved… intelligent too…
Pigeons are not the only birds men have used for their purposes. Here in NZ the Maoris used to catch the male birds and trim the brush-like growth at the end of their tongues so they could train them to speak. They taught tuis chants as long as fifty words, keeping them imprisoned in the dark in a tiny cage till they were trained. Each poor prisoner, when able to do all the Maori cries and chants, was then imprisoned for the rest of his life in a cage, shaped rather like a Maori eel-pot, fifteen inches wide at the bottom, and thirteen inches high. The bird-cage was often hung at the entrance to a marae. This reminds me of the old Chinese men in long grey or brown robes, in Hongkong, who would solemnly take their caged birds for a walk in the parks, still in their cages.
Parrots too have always had a raw deal locked up in cages with their wings clipped. In Japan recently one escaped and a few days later ended up at the local police station. With a captive audience the intelligent bird told them his name and address and telephone number. His relieved owner then came to fetch him.
When Time magazine ran an article discussing the intelligence of animals and other creatures, they ended by quoting the example of a pet parrot being taken to the vet and having to stay behind for treatment. The bird understood he was being left, and began begging his owners not to leave him, promising to be a good boy. This is the exact pattern of small children left in hospital, and attributing the horror of it to what seems like punishment for their own misdeeds. The parrot had responded with the same emotional pattern as a human toddler, but the researchers described him as ‘mimicking human behaviour’. This did not prove that birds and animals had feelings, the article ended.
I gave away a book on birds in disgust a few weeks ago. It was a detailed account of how they hear see, fly, etc etc. The book opened with a vignette of a white goose waiting by the side of an icy road beside its dead mate, somewhere in the frozen north. Three weeks later it was still there, still waiting, still grieving for its lost mate. The book closed by returning to this grief-stricken creature, and said, just like that Time article, that neither this behaviour, nor that of the birds they had observed mating for life, returning year after year to each other, flying around each other, greeting and calling ecstatically when they’d been parted, proved that birds had emotions like us. So how do these heartless researchers explain what birds are doing when fluttering around the body of their mate killed on the road, hiding from cats in the garden, protecting their young, showing fear?
Scientists seem terrified to admit that other species have emotions like us. They call it anthropomorphism and think those of us who practise it are mistaken and merely sentimental. And though St Francis was allowed to acknowledge the feelings of all creatures, the rest of us are still supposed to accept Descartes’s malign thinking that since animals and other creatures don’t have feelings and don’t feel pain, they can be used for any purposes (there are still scientists who argue for this).
Descartes’s theories have influenced our society since the so-called Age of Enlightenment. But if only we really had been enlightened! If we were, would we all be anthropomorphists? I suppose it depends on whether we come from our head or our heart.
Food for threadbare gourmets
Reverting to an ancient English tradition, we had roast lamb for Sunday lunch! I never do it with mint sauce, since originally the idea of the vinegar and mint was to disguise the taint of meat that wasn’t fresh, but I do like the mint, so I chop it up and stir it into the gravy. (When my seven year old son first encountered mint sauce at a friend’s house, he told me the meat was covered in: “yucky black tea-leaves!”). When putting the lamb in the oven, I rub the skin with salt to make it crisp.
I also make an onion sauce, which I suppose is some sort of throwback to the capers in white sauce that used to be served with mutton- a meat no-one seems to encounter in the west these days. I boil a large chopped onion, and drain the onion water, using it to make a white sauce which is then enriched with milk or cream and a good tasting of nutmeg. Then stir in the chopped onion – delicious with the lamb.
Food for thought
Accuracy is not a virtue; it is a duty.
AE Housman, 20th century English poet and brilliant classicist, best known for his poems in ‘A Shropshire Lad’.