Bird Aces of the Canadian Air Force

To those familiar with the Canadian Air Force station at Jericho near Vancouver, the names and exploits of the late Major McLaurin, Major Godfry, Lieuts. McLeod and Duncan and Corporal Dickie are well known. Not so generally recognized are the dogged grit, and faithful endurance of their feathered comrades, the carrier pigeons.

JOHN NELSON July 1 1925

Bird Aces of the Canadian Air Force

To those familiar with the Canadian Air Force station at Jericho near Vancouver, the names and exploits of the late Major McLaurin, Major Godfry, Lieuts. McLeod and Duncan and Corporal Dickie are well known. Not so generally recognized are the dogged grit, and faithful endurance of their feathered comrades, the carrier pigeons.

JOHN NELSON July 1 1925

Bird Aces of the Canadian Air Force


A CHINESE liner was beating up the Straits of Juan de Fuca, inbound from the Orient. The illicit narcotic trade was at its height.

The collector of customs at Vancouver wanted to warn the watchman on the lonely lightship that tosses continually at the Sandheads, to look out for smugglers while the steamer was crossing the Gulf. It was a winter’s day and a fifteen mile wind was blowing when his hydroplane left the government hangar for the Heads. Twenty minutes later, when the machine took the water in lee of the lightship a forty-mile gale was lashing the sea. By the time the official had given his instructions, the sea had risen, and the aviator could not take off. He tried to taxi to the shelter of a distant break-water, but when he attempted to take the gale on his quarter, it constantly drew the plane’s nose back into the wind. The seas came over and filled the cockpit. The engine stopped. The occupants were forced to bale water to keep afloat.

Night was coming down, with a rising sea. The young airman, Lieut. McLeod, was not alarmed, but thought it best to notify headquarters. So he took his pigeon cage from the pit. Two had been drowned. But two others, though very much bedraggled, had survived. Fastening an aluminum cylinder with a message on the leg of each, he threw the birds clear of the machine. They fluttered in circles for a few minutes to adjust their dampened pinions, peered with bright eyes into the gathering darkness, and then flew straight for land.

Fifteen minutes later the clang of a bell, in the orderly room at the air station, brought half a dozen officers to their feet, as if it had been a pistol shot.

The first bird had landed on the automatic signal board at the door of his perch, and had thereby thrown in the electric contact which warned the staff.

Action on. the Dot

INSTANTLY the whole station was alive. Telephones rang. Wireless crackled. Tugs and launches pushed out into the heavy sea, and raced for the lightship, and the chilled passengers were promptly picked off.

Unknown to the general public similar things are happening at every well-equipped air station on the continent. Lazy bathers, lounging on hot sands, or busy business men hurrying to office or appointment, look up for a moment at the drone of an engine high in the blue ether, in indifferent abstraction. Only an aeroplane!

Few know that housed in the same machine are the oldest and newest couriers of the air—the homing pigeon, and the flying man. The way in which their work has been co-ordinated is one of the most interesting outcomes of the war.

Already there are bird “aces” almost as famous as human ones.

The man is the stronger and swifter.

He can outfly, as he can outthink, anything that travels the easy highways of the air. He loves to overhaul the eagle, formerly lord of the blue.

The bird at first proceeds with leisurely assurance, casting occasionally behind him a careless glance in tolerant observation of this big, new noisy thing that vexes with unwonted tumult the heavens, so long threaded in silence by him and his breed. Presently he becomes alarmed. The great pinions move faster and faster in labored motion. Then, as the onrushing monster looms, panic seizes him and he darts downward out of its path.

Huddled in the darkness of the nose of the machine, distressed by the uproar there, and sharing with another bird the cramped quarters of a diagonally divided box, the pigeon’s part in a successful flight

To those familiar with the Canadian Air Force station at Jericho near Vancouver, the names and exploits of the late Major McLaurin, Major Godfry, Lieuts. McLeod and Duncan and Corporal Dickie are well known. Not so generally recognized are the dogged grit, and faithful endurance of their feathered comrades, the carrier pigeons.

is humble and obscure. It is when spruce wings and metal heart fail that he comes into his own as the tiny but unfailing auxiliary of the aluminum bird; the S.O.S. of the disabled aviator.

The Pigeon’s Training

piGEONS, unlike airmen, do not have to be taught to fly. Nor do they lack what is instinctive with the human, the sense of location and direction. For these, however, an objective has to be created. But the bird brain must not be overtaxed. So army pigeons are taught to fly in but one direction—home. And

home means north, south, east, or west, according to training.

In five weeks the young birds are able to use their wings. In twelve they can do one hundred miles. All army pigeons are from racing strains. Build, strength, stamina, initiative—all have been developed by selection and breeding. Only tests and training disclose these traits. Like yachts, their sail area, or length of wings establishes their possibilities; like athletes they go off form, and sometimes break down.

The young birds are first taken a few miles from home, and released with an experienced leader. Short individual flights follow, until they can do thirty or forty miles.

Their real education then begins. They have an aversion to water and mountains. They can’t fly in thick fog, against a thirty-mile gale, or in the dark. A tendency to alight when tired must be checked. Sight, memory, and instinct, all must be developed. A first-class homer will measure twenty-eight inches from tip to tip. This great wing snread, with its ten outer layer of feathers (the flights) and three rows at the extreme tips (the pinions) means speed. The great stout butt of the wing, like a forearm, spells power. The bird must learn to co-ordinate these. Determination and persistence now become basic in its training.

There is need of both. Unlike his human prototype the feathered flyer is often forced down by elements to which the other is superior. Rain will do it. So will fog and gale. But the most dreaded of all is the hawk. If the pigeon can remain above his foe he is safe. But the hawk, once higher, falls on him like a bullet. The eagle he can outfly.

Like all pure-bred stock, from racehorses to greyhounds, this bird is highly sensitive and temperamental. It requires careful handling. In releasing, if the “flights” be crossed the bird may be handicapped if not injured. When cleared from a machine in full career it is wrapped in cloths, and dropped headforemost. This saves the fluttering bird from striking the struts of the machine, or from being caught in its slip stream. By the time it struggles free it is clear of danger.

Lieut. McLeod dropped one such bird over a w-estern harbor. For some reason it did not free itself, and fell a thousand feet into the sea.

The aviator noted the widening circles w-here it struck and concluded it had been killed. A few days later it struggled back to the station, thin and battered. Indignant at the rough treatment it had received, it had flown to its original home, from which it had to be chased before it would return to its new’ one. Another bird, with a 550-mile record was inadvertently hurt, and at once w-ent “home to mother.” It could not be induced to return, and had to be transferred, finally, to a distant station.

The qualities developed in flight, are quickly evident in a bird’s manner in the loft. Pigeons all prefer upper roosts. But it is noteworthy that while there is much fighting for these early in the season, eventually they are all occupied by the premier flyers of the covey.

The Fighting Lothario

HE human ace, even when propped in pillows in a hospital ward, may broadcast his exploits to the world. His feathered friend and colleague is denied that means of chronicle. Count Jericho is the veteran ace of the government’s loft. Except indolently to circle his home the Count will never fly again. He has passed the allotted span of pigeon life, and he bears the scars of mortal combat. His last long flight was marked by a fierce battle which Continued on page 53

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there was no human eye to witness, and no human pen to record. He was on a four-hundred-mile journey from Eugene, Oregon, to Vancouver, B.C., with several other birds. They had been released at six that morning.

Shortly before six at night the squadron reached home. The Count failed to arrive. But just as the station was about to despair he limped in. He was a sorry sight. His tail feathers were gone. One wing drooped. He bore others signs of desperate strife with a hawk. But his proud spirit was unbroken. He limped about the loft, crippled, and suffering, but as dominant and masterful as ever. Perhaps he was not inarticulate. Who can tell what language may be hidden behind the interminable billing and cooing of the dovecot? Perhaps after all, that drooping wing may be the ornithological crutch which the broken old soldier uses to show how fields were won. At any rate his primacy is undisputed, and in affairs of the heart his scars plead his cause more successfully than the brilliant plumage of younger rivals. Though he is two years past the three score and ten of bird life, his ideas are young, for he is an incurable flirt. Nor does the female of his species seem to differ from females in higher forms of life, for at mating season, he has first choice of the harem. It is significant that he always chooses one of the youngest flappers.

Feathered Heroes of the Air

OTHERS have not been so lucky as the Count. Major McLaurin, a famous Canadian air fighter, was, after the war, in command of the Jericho station. Flying one day above Point Grey a leak developed in his gasoline tank, and coming too close to the cliffs in his descent he crashed into shallow water, and was killed. In the cockpit of his machine he carried Morrow’s Bill, a trusty flier with a 400 mile record. Poor Bill shared his master’s death. The photographic art of Lieut. Duncan has preserved the figure of the splendid bird.

Corporal Dickie who has charge of the lofts was always a pigeon fancier. But he learned for them a new respect under terrible conditions. His regiment, the 49th Battalion of Edmonton, was brigaded with the immortal Princess Pats at Sanctuary Wood on the 2nd of June, 1916, when all hell broke loose about them. Their gallant commander, Colonel Buller, was dead, and all the senior officers killed or out of action. The Mounted Rifles on their right had been blown up and the British artillery support for which they had asked, through an unfortunate mischance, and inadequate information, pouring death into their broken lines. Reinforcements were desperately needed. Runners were killed as fast as they attempted to get through. Finally in the hope of getting accurate intelligence back from the front line, headquarters sent some men up with pigeons.

Dickie seizing the opportunity, rapidly instructed the men on the proper means of handling and releasing them, and rushed back a couple of birds with the necessary reports.

The British Intelligence Corps took up the work. At the Somme, birds carried

over 1200 messages. Nearly 400 were used as spys. Little silk balloons were allowed to drift to points behind the German lines. To each was attached a parachute and a cage of pigeons. A burning time fuse released the parachute over cultivated fields of a French or Belgian peasant. Attached to each was a note asking the friendly recipient to release the bird at dusk with a report giving the presence, position, and numbers, of enemy troops. At Byng’s big fight at Passchendaele, two pigeons brought reports from twenty miles behind the enemy’s lines, with maps showing where the Germans were sending up reinforcements. Col. Leckie who did much to foster pigeon training on bis return, was “down” for four days in the North Sea unnoticed, while destroyers were frequently passing within close range. He released four birds. The third got through with its message, and brought rescue.

Army training, unlike that of the fancier, lays less emphasis on speed than on dependability. The range of these birds is being widened. Aversion to water and mountains is being overcome. Greater persistence in the face of danger, and disposition to remain longer and later in the air is constantly encouraged. The pigeon is an individual, not a gregarious, flyer. Each bird therefore has to have individual treatment.

The Universal Impulse

AS WITH the human, the magnet that draws it unerringly, and the impulse which maintains the wing-weary bird in unfaltering flight, and brings it home, is the Nest. It is a domestic instinct-love of mate, and young, and loft. A bird which fights with wing and bill, from intrusion on its nest, is unfailingly a determined flier. Hard maple peas from Australia, with an occasional tidbit cf hemp or canary seed, is used to stimulate this home instinct. Male and female construct their nest together, the former gathering sticks, the latter acting as architect and builder. They faithfully relay on the nest during the hatching period. And from both their crops the young are fed during adolescence. Nor do they neglect community duty. Parents contribute to the sustenance of less fortunate families. Even the bachelors do their bit in this regard, that the species may persist. An army pigeon, beating in through the storm with a life-and-death message from an aviator struggling to keep afloat with a disabled machine out somewhere on the darkening waters, has neither thought, nor time, for heroics. It. impatiently waits, with beak through the delaying bars, for admission to its perch, till an attendant detaches from its leg the vital missive. As soon as admitted it hurries to the nest-side and endeavors, often from an absolutely empty crop, to feed its young That instinct transcends every other, even the need of food for its own fainting body.

Invention will greatly improve the type, the range, and the usefulness of modern air craft. It can never displace in beauty, and within certain limits, in usefulness, the pioneer of the science and one of the most ancient of ethereal navigators —the self-supported, self-directed, and self-propelled pigeon.