The birds in our hands


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’.



Filed under animals/pets, army, birds, cookery/recipes, food, great days, history, military history, philosophy, The Sound of Water, Thoughts on writing and life, Uncategorized, world war one

57 responses to “The birds in our hands

  1. I think I will always remember Cher Ami, now that you have told us.


  2. To quote Gulliver’s Travels, humans are “the most pernicious race of little odious vermin that nature ever suffered to crawl upon the surface of the earth.” It’s not animals who don’t have emotions. If we look at some of the heinous acts we do to them, it’s we who don’t have the worthier range of emotions.


    • I so agree… animals simply haven;t got it in them to behave the way we do both to them and to each other…at least there are now some legal protections for animals in some places, and in Sweden, for example, you’re not allowed to leave a dog on its own for more than four hours, I’m told…let’s hope the rest of the world catches up…


  3. How very sad, actually. Birds are just as intelligent as the rest of creation. Sometimes it appears that humans are truly the stupid ones.


  4. You write of birds; I write of horses. What is it, on this day, that makes us both think of the souls and feelings of our fellow creatures. Unfortunately, I found several discrepancies in my research on horses, so I fear I may have failed in my duty 😦


  5. Beautiful opening photo and entertaining history lesson. Thanks for sharing the ‘rest of the story’ I didn’t know.


  6. So pleased you noticed the photo! and glad you enjoyed the rest of the post… thank you so much for commenting


  7. only unelightened souls prescribe to the illusion that homo sapiens are the only ones who feel, who love, who grieve. Unfortunately those are the very souls that have held sway for too long. I live in hope that we are waking up in many ways and knowing we are not a superior species, in any way truly, is part of that awakening.


  8. Anyone who denies animals have feelings can’t have kept pets as a youngster, and probably shouldn’t.
    Onion sauce was always my favourite with beef but I’ve never seen it served anywhere but at home.. I’m afraid for me mint sauce is just the waste of a good vinegar.
    xxx Huge Hugs Valerie xxx


  9. A wonderful story of Cher Ami Valerie and a disappointing conclusion by the scientists.


  10. Fascinating bird stories!


  11. Love your Cher Ami story, I am a great lover of birds and share my office space with a cockatoo named Merlin. He is a terrible teenager at 22 years of age and most certainly has emotions. I wish he were more free than he is, but his world is limited by my world.

    I have always shared my space with cats, dogs and for the past 22 years Merlin. They all most certainly have emotional lives.


    • LOve the idea of Merlin sharing an office with you ! My husband used to work in a magazine office where one of the writers used to carry her parrot to and fro every day from home to work and back again !


  12. Loved the story of Cher Ami. I don’t think we can really say if animals/birds have emotions like humans, because we have no way of finding that out. Some of them, or even many, seem to us to have similar emotions. Maybe it’s best to say they seem to have emotions of some sort. Maybe they think humans have some emotions like they do. But there again, we’re anthropomorphizing. 🙂 I guess we just have to love them and be amazed by them and enjoy the speculation.



    • Ah well, you’re speaking to an anthropomorphist.
      I fear the speculation allows some people to treat animals badly because they don’t accept that they have feelings like us.


      • As a Christian, I believe in treating all God’s creations well. Even if not Christian, I think people can be judged by the way they treat those around them, especially the weaker, which of course some animals aren’t, but I think you know what I mean.


  13. How scary for those birds flying through artillery. Science has been slow on the front of animals feeling emotion. Slowly they seem to be coming round and accepting it. Just observing animal behaviour it’s impossible to deny their feelings.


  14. Why would we deny animals have emotions? They may not be the same as our emotions, but I think it’s arrogant to believe they don’t – or denial, because if it was proven that they did, it would be harder for us to do the things we do to them. Love the story of plucky Cher Ami.


  15. Whenever I come to your posts, I make myself a hot cup of tea to leisurely explore your thoughts and read all of the comments.

    Cher Ami – the name says it all – dear friend. We owe a great deal of gratitude to our fellow travelers who we continue to misunderstand. I know they understand our language – we have not attained that level of ability to understand theirs. Isn’t is interesting that we think that language must be on our terms before it can be considered a language. The term that is used is “animal communication.” Communication – Isn’t that what “language” is all about? Cher Ami understood the danger, recognized the he was the only hope for the lost battalion. No missed communication!

    “If you have men who will exclude any of God’s creatures from the shelter of compassion and pity, you will have men who will deal likewise with their fellow men.” St. Francis of Assisi


  16. Oh Rebecca, what a wonderful comment… you’re so right about the nonsense of calling it ‘animal communication’ and what a glorious quote from St Francis, and oh, so true.
    Yes, wasn’t Cher Ami a hero.. you can’t help but love him, bless him…


  17. Michele Seminara

    So many animals have served us well, and we, under the guise of their having ‘no feelings’, have repaid them poorly. What ignorance and arrogance! I’m glad they have you on their side, Valerie. x


  18. Those scientists are about as clever as the ones who still defend, with great vigour and certainty, the flat-earth theory. They are absolutely determined to put their preferred interpretation on the behaviour regardless of how it conflicts with the evidence.
    I also regard as morons those who contend that humans have souls and animals don’t. .


  19. What an astounding wonderful little bird. I saw a documentary about him one time…it broke my heart, but I was very proud of him also.

    *♥´¨) ¸.-´¸.-♥´¨) Happy Valentine’s Day¸.-♥¨) (¸.-` ♥♥´¨


  20. Dear Valerie,

    I once dog-sat for my son and daughter-in-law. Those who claim animals have no emotions might change their minds had they spent two hours trying to console a heartbroken pup mourning the absence of her people.

    After reading the account of Cher Ami, I find it impossible to believe he was acting on instinct alone.

    Wonderful writing as always.

    Shalom and Kia Ora,



    • Dear Rochelle – what a lovely comment… I can imagine the piercing wails of a grieving puppy… there’s nothing quite so heart-reading is there? I’ve had seventeen dogs, and each one was so different and their character and personalities and responses unique…
      I agree with you about Cher Ami ..
      Thank you as ever for your appreciation, Rochelle, Love Valerie


  21. Amy

    Cher Ami stories are fascinating! They are intelligent, sensitive, loving, loyal, and beautiful animals. Thank you for another well written story, Valerie!


  22. Thank you Amy… the more we see and learn about the animal kingdom, the more humbling their goodness and great hearts are, aren’t they


  23. I’ll take your word about homing pigeons, but the pigeons I’ve come across in my time (and they have been many, have been stupid. Maybe it’s the cross breeding. I love cats, though. People often say that cats aren’t bothered with us except at meal times, but I say that cats are fond of us in their regal way but they have better things to do with their time than hang around waiting for us to come home.


  24. ‘Scientists seem terrified to admit that other species have emotions like us’. If they would recognize animals to have emotions and suffer, a large part of the world would turn vegan. So there is pressure from the food industry. No person with a pet dog, eats dogs. No person with cats, would eat cat-meat and people who love birds, don’t eat them. And that is because we see their emotional behaviour and their loyalty. It works on grass-root level, but not all the way. We, humans, have much to learn.


  25. I agree animals are smarter than we give them credit for. But then I think so are the trees, mountains and maybe rocks. Just because we can’t measure all intelligences doesn’t mean they aren’t there.


  26. Richard

    Love your blog and look forward to hearing you on the Kim Hill show
    A practical question: What is the surface on the steps in the pic above? Looking for a none slip surface but both of us cannot agree on what


  27. A great post Valerie, and I enjoyed hearing you tell the story of Cher Ami also on Kim Hill’s show this morning. Those researchers seem to have to leave their hearts behind in order to be scientists.


  28. Yes, science is a funny thing isn’t it !!!! Thank you Juliet, I love your generous comments.


  29. Thank you for another beautiful article filled with knowledge and wisdom Valerie!

    I always wondered why we assume that everybody has to feel like we do?
    Maybe birds experience emotions in a different way than humans do. Maybe dogs experience emotions in a different way than horses do. Maybe each individual in the world has a unique, individual way of experience. And maybe only the sum of all these varieties complete the circle we call life-experience.

    I am with you Valerie. It’s a matter of heart rather than a matter of head. Thank you for naming it. 🙂

    Much love,


  30. I am so happy that I always hang on to the email notifications for your posts and I get to them eventually. I just joined the Audobon Society here. I’m excited to get more birding in my life! Derwood loves birds and can tell anyone who will listen all about the intelligence of crows, they talk to each other and it’s not just noise-making.

    That photo is gorgeous. I am eagerly waiting for spring!


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