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It seems you can never be too careful when it comes to pigeons. At least, that’s the approach the Indian authorities took with a pigeon that turned up near a port in Mumbai last May. The bird aroused suspicions because it had metal rings on one of its legs and appeared to have Chinese writing beneath its wings.
Amidst an atmosphere of heightened geopolitical tensions between the world’s two most populous nations, that was enough for police to hold the pigeon in custody while investigations were carried out. The bird’s eight months in detention began in a Mumbai jail, though it was later transferred to the Bai Sakarbai Dinshaw Petit Hospital for Animals.
Eventually, the police decided that concerns that the pigeon was engaged in some form of espionage on behalf of China were unfounded, and it was released on January 30.
Experts say that the bird was most likely a racing pigeon from Taiwan that got lost, though how it managed to end up in India’s largest city, some 3,000 miles (4,828 km) away, is still a mystery. Pigeons are capable of flying around 620 miles (1,000 km) in a day, so the bird in question would have had to make stops along the way, or it could have “stowed away” on an eastbound boat.
Pigeon racing is a popular pastime in China and Taiwan, and successful birds can be very valuable. In the Taiwanese pigeon racing format, the birds are released at sea and have to rely on their homing instinct to get back to land, which may be up to 310 miles (499 km) away across the open ocean. Yet they sometimes get lost and end up in completely the wrong place. The animal rights group PETA, which was involved in lobbying for the bird’s freedom, has also spoken out against pigeon racing in Taiwan, as countless birds die every year when they don’t make it back to land or are killed for being too slow.
Don’t trust that pigeon:
- Similar pigeon detentions occurred in India in 2015 and 2020, though in those cases, the birds were suspected of spying for Pakistan.
- The use of pigeons in reconnaissance and espionage has a historical basis. Pigeons are known for their speed and homing instinct, while their preference for congregating in large flocks has helped conceal their sometimes covert activities. Pigeons were used extensively for carrying messages (often vital intelligence information) in both World War I and World War II.
- There is evidence of “pigeon post” being used to send messages as far back as ancient Egypt and ancient Rome. In recent years, reports have surfaced of pigeons being used to smuggle cell phones, narcotics, batteries, and USB cords across borders and into prisons.