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School pigeon: Birds get their due in SD 218 history class

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Updated: November 25, 2012 11:25AM



Behold the pigeon: urban nuisance, celebrated war hero, classroom project.

During World War I, a pigeon saved the lives of 194 soldiers when it delivered a message that kept the U.S. Army Signal Corps in France from bombing its own men.

Cheri Ami (“Dear friend” in French) flew 25 miles in 25 minutes, under German fire, to deliver the message in the nick of time. When he arrived, he was bloody, blind in one eye and missing a leg.

That pigeon was one of many credited with saving thousands of lives during World Wars I and II. When shortwave radio failed, carrier pigeons came to the rescue. They were used to disclose locations, give new orders or announce that a plane had been shot down.

The story of Cheri Ami, told by teacher Kevin Clough during a recent history lesson at Summit Learning Center in Robbins, was just the beginning of an engaging session that had students petting pigeons, writing messages and cheering as 11 birds were released in a school courtyard.

The pigeon project was a collaborative effort between Clough and Delta Learning Center Dean Sam Bacino.

Bacino, who raises and races pigeons, brought some of his birds to school that day so the students could see firsthand how the winged messengers were trained, tagged and used to save thousands of lives during battle.

“I love the history. I love how these animals perform at such a high level,” Bacino said. “You can take them anywhere and they’ll find a way back. They learn really fast.”

“Any time you can find something to enrich a lesson, it’s good,” Clough said. “It’s always worthwhile to break out of the common mold of just learning out of a history book.”

As they gathered around the carrier, one student said, “I’ve seen these in the city.”

“If I stick my finger in there, will they bite?” another asked.

Winged heroes

Before the class moved outside for the pigeon release, Clough explained how the birds have served man from the beginning of time.

The Persians, Romans and Greeks all used pigeons to communicate, as did Julius Caesar. An African chief once sent pigeons to Lebanon with the sole purpose of having them bring back cherries, one piece of fruit per bird, carried in a satchel attached to a leg.

More recently, the birds were used to relay messages before shortwave radio became a reliable medium.

Bacino explained that pigeons can be trained to return to their home, which can easily become a military base or camp. Soldiers would carry the birds on missions with them, sometimes in planes, sometimes by ground to a battlefront.

Messages are placed in capsules that are attached to the birds’ legs. Once the birds are released, they rely on the sun, landmarks and their ability to see the Earth’s magnetic field to make their way back home.

Much like humans are honored for going above and beyond the call of duty, animals are celebrated for their service by being awarded the Dickin Medal. Recently the medal was awarded posthumously to a dog that saved a team of soldiers from an improvised explosive device.

Of the 64 Dickin Medals awarded to date, 33 have gone to pigeons, Clough said.

On a wing and a cheer

After the lesson, the students wrote short messages on tiny slips of paper.

Spencer Shaw wrote his name.

Tre Price wrote his hometown, “Robbins.”

And Tyresse Clay wrote, simply, “pigeons.”

All of the messages were put into a capsule and attached to one of the birds.

Then the class moved outside to watch Bacino unlatch the pigeon crate. Once the door was opened, the birds took flight.

“They gone,” one student shouted.

“What happens if they get lost?” another asked.

As Bacino expected, the flock circled overhead a few times and then headed for home. Bacino promised to bring them and the students’ messages back the next day to prove the system works.

When asked if they enjoyed the lesson, Clay said, “Yes, it was fun. It was different.”

Brendan Moss, a senior from Delta, located in the same building as Summit, joined the class for the lesson and demonstration.

“It’s interesting to see how they’re raised,” he said. “I think it’s pretty cool to bring them to the classroom.”



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