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China's Most Secret Weapon: The

Messenger Pigeon
By Chengcheng Jiang / Beijing
Wednesday, Mar. 02, 2011
From TIME Magazine
Vocabulary to know before you read:


Though the world's

attention has recently
been focused on the
unveiling of China's first
ever stealth fighter jet,
the Chinese military has
been busy investing in
another type of furtive
flyer: the humble
messenger pigeon.
According to reports in
state media, late last
year, the Chengdu
division of the People's
Liberation Army (PLA)
began training 10,000 pigeons as part of a push to build a "reserve pigeon
army" that would provide support to the military's conventional
communications infrastructure in the event that war rendered its
plethora of modern technology unusable.
"These military pigeons will be primarily called upon to conduct special
military missions between troops stationed at our land borders or ocean
borders," air force military expert Chen Hong told China Central Television
after the announcement. According to reports, the birds will be dispersed to
communications bases across China's remote and mountainous
southwestern region, particularly around the Himalayan foothills. The

pigeons, flying at speeds of up to 75 miles (120 km) per hour, will be trained
to carry loads of up to 3.5 oz. (100 g).
The birds have a long history of service in China. Messenger pigeons have
been used in the country for more than a thousand years, and pigeons have
been earning their military stripes here since at least the late 1930s. In 1937
Lieutenant Claire Lee Chennault, a retired U.S. Air Force pilot, arrived in
China to head up a group of U.S.-sponsored aviators known as the Flying
Tigers, tasked with taking to the air to repel the Japanese invasion of the
mainland. He brought with him hundreds of messenger pigeons to help with
the war effort, and after the war, he left the birds behind. That group of
pigeons would form the core of the PLA's first military pigeon brigade.
Today the pigeons serve alongside 10,000 dogs in PLA service, guarding
military warehouses, assisting special police forces and supporting border
troops. Two thousand new dogs are reportedly signed up each year. Horses,
once an important part of the military operations, have fallen out of fashion,
as the PLA cavalry has played an increasingly peripheral role. There are
said to be fewer than 1,000 cavalry soldiers left in the PLA, and those who
remain mostly take part in exhibitions or movie shoots.
The Chinese army is far from the only one to turn to these winged warriors in
times of trouble. Hundreds of pigeons were dropped over Normandy during
the D-Day landings to provide a communication channel back to Britain for
soldiers who feared their radio messages would be intercepted by the
Nazis. The first pigeon to make it back to London with the news that the
invasion had been a success was awarded high military honors. Criminals,
too, have found pigeons useful: in January, authorities in Colombia
apprehended a pigeon that was being used by smugglers to deliver
narcotics to their incarcerated compatriots. The over-burdened bird, with
cocaine and marijuana strapped to its back, fell out of the sky before
crossing the prison walls.
In China, the birds are also used for recreation. Pigeon racing and pigeon
breeding in general has exploded in popularity among China's upwardly
mobile middle class. In late January, at a pigeon auction in Belgium, an
unnamed Chinese bidder broke the world record price for a single pigeon by
paying $200,000 for a pedigree Belgian racing bird, considered the crme
de la crme of the pigeon racing world.
1. Why might Chinas use of messenger pigeons be surprising?
2. According to the article, how have messenger pigeons been used in the
3. Do you think the number of pigeons that are being trained (10,000) is too
much? Too few? Just right? Why?