Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Tools of the Trade: Seabird Messengers

Something we rarely hear about in the history of seafaring is the use of birds as carriers of information from ship to ship and from ship to shore. More people are familiar with the heroic actions of carrier pigeons by land in war time, particularly those used in Europe during World War I. As early as the 17th century, however, clever sailors devised ways to use seabirds as messengers.

An example of this was written about by Lieutenant Vaillant who was aboard HMS Ganges off Gibraltar in 1784 with a small squadron of other ships. He writes of the use of wild birds for signaling in this excerpt from his memoires:

The four vessels sailed in company; without losing sight of each other: and we even visited one another, when the weather was calm, and we could hoist out our boats. When this kind of intercourse was rendered impracticable by high winds and too stormy sea, we had recourse to another, that of mutually writing letters, of which the gulls and terns were carriers. These birds, beaten by the winds, and tired with their flight, would pitch upon our yards to rest themselves, where the sailors easily caught them. Having fastened our little epistles to their legs, we then let them fly: and, making a noise to prevent their alighting again on the vessel, obliged them to wing their course to the next. There they were caught again by the crew, and sent back to us in the same manner with answers to our letters.

Though this was certainly not a standard or even habitual way of getting information from one ship to another, it is an ingenious one. Although it is worth pointing out that it was a difficult service for the birds, no doubt.

Header: HMS Ganges (1856) via royalengineers.ca


Timmy! said...

Ahoy, Pauline! It doesn't sound like a very reliable method, either, but more of a "game" to pass the time for the sailors...

Pauline said...

I got that feeling too. All the same, I plan to keep an eye out for documentation of similar uses for seabirds.