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SCIENCE HISTORY IMAGES/ALAMY STOCK PHOTO
The Pigeon Hero of World War I

The incredible true story of Cher Ami, the bird that saved nearly 200 American soldiers during World War I

By Lauren Tarshis
From the March / April 2019 Issue

Learning Objective: Students will gain knowledge about World War I as they identify a problem a group of U.S. soldiers faced and how a bird helped solve it.

Lexile: 600L-700L, 800L-900L
Guided Reading Level: V
DRA Level: 50

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Problem and Solution: As you read, look for the problem soldiers faced and how a pigeon helped solve it

The American soldiers were doomed.

It was October 1918, not long before the end of World War I. This was a war more brutal than any before in history; it would leave
17 million people dead and pull more than 135 countries, including the United States, into battles around the globe.

Now, in a dark, rainy forest in northeastern France, several hundred American troops were in a fight for their lives. The men were surrounded by enemy German soldiers. Machine guns rattled. Bombs rained from the sky. The Americans needed help. Their only hope was to get an urgent message to their leaders, 25 miles away.

But how? There were no walkie-talkies or cell phones in 1918, no computers to send emails. And the army radios weren’t working.

Luckily, there was one brave warrior who had been trained for a moment exactly like this one. She took off with the message on a life-or-death race across the forest.

Her name was Cher Ami, and she was not a soldier. She was not even a human.

She was a pigeon.

Incredible Powers

Cher Ami (French for “dear friend”) was one of thousands of pigeons that served with American soldiers during World War I. These birds were a breed known as carrier pigeons (or homing pigeons). They had an important job: to carry messages.

Why would the military use pigeons as messengers? For one thing, these pigeons are fast—some can fly up to 90 miles per hour. They are also smart. A pigeon’s brain is no bigger than a wad of bubble gum. But like the tiny chip in an iPhone, that pigeon brain is packed with power. For example, pigeons can be trained to recognize letters and words.

But what truly makes these pigeons ideal for carrying messages is their ability to return to their home nest, no matter how far away it is. Nobody needs to show them how to get home. They just know. These gray birds can travel over seas and mountains, across hundreds of twisting miles. They almost never get lost. It’s this remarkable power of navigation that makes pigeons such good messengers.

If you wanted to use a pigeon as a messenger, you would teach it that its home was on your roof. You could take the bird with you to your friend’s house, keeping it safe in its cage. When you were ready to be picked up, you would write a message and place it in a pinkie-sized metal tube attached to your pigeon’s leg. You’d release your pigeon, it would carry your message back home, and soon someone would come to get you.

Brutal Battles

Long before the days of phones, texts, and FaceTime, the only way to send a message over long distances was to send a human runner—or a pigeon. Ship captains used pigeons to send weather reports back to shore. Knights took pigeons with them into battle and used them to send news back to their kings. At the first Olympics, nearly 3,000 years ago, pigeons carried the results of chariot races to surrounding cities.

In the 1800s, new inventions like the telegraph and the telephone transformed the way
humans communicated. But in wartime, getting information across long distances was still difficult, especially during battles.

And in World War I, the battles were bigger and bloodier than the world had ever seen. New weapons unleashed terror and death on a massive scale. Machine guns fired hundreds of bullets per minute. Poison gas caused blistering burns and scorched lungs. Airplanes dropped bombs that caused huge explosions.

Modern technologies had made killing all too easy. But when it came to sending messages from a battlefield, no new invention was as reliable as a pigeon.

Mud, Rats, and Fear

Camera Press/Redux

A GLOBAL CONFLICT

World War I (1914-1918) was fought across Europe as well as in Africa and the Middle East. The major allies were Great Britain, France, Russia, and the U.S. on one side and Germany, Austria-Hungary, and the Ottoman Empire (now Turkey and nearby countries) on the other.

Cher Ami was born in England and trained by one of the country’s most famous pigeon experts. She was brought to France to serve during World War I. Cher Ami’s home nest was at the American army headquarters near a forest called Argonne.

In peacetime, Argonne was a fairy-tale forest of towering trees and babbling brooks. But by the time Cher Ami arrived in France, World War I had been dragging on for four years. The forests and fields of France had been transformed into blood-soaked battlefields, haunted by the ghosts of hundreds of thousands of dead soldiers.

These battles were fought with something called trench warfare. Trenches were deep, narrow ditches that stretched for miles. Soldiers would stay inside the trenches, which offered them some protection from bullets and grenades, until it was time to push forward. Progress was slow—and bloody. Each time the men left their own trench, they faced a storm of gunfire and bombs.

But men didn’t just fight from the trenches. They lived in them—24 hours a day, often for weeks at a time. They coped with knee-deep mud, with the sickening stench of garbage and human waste, with rampant disease, with constant fear. The noise of machine guns and bomb blasts made sleep almost impossible. Soldiers who did manage to fall asleep often awoke to find rats scurrying across their chests.

Cher Ami joined the men of the 77th Infantry Division, part of a large battalion of American soldiers. The man in charge, Major Charles Whittlesey, had been ordered to lead his troops in an attack on the Germans in Argonne. Cher Ami was one of eight pigeons brought on the mission. The birds lived together in a cage. They were cared for by a young soldier from New York. He did his best to keep them safe as the troops moved through the forest.

Under Attack

Deep in the forest, on October 3, Whittlesey’s men marched into the path of a large German force. The Americans were soon surrounded and under fierce attack.

The men—there were about 550 of them—tried to fight back. But they were low on ammunition, badly outnumbered, and exhausted. After all, many hadn’t had much sleep for weeks. Food had run low. The only way for the men to get a sip of water was to risk crawling through the mud to a stream.

The Germans pummeled the American troops with artillery—blasting them with powerful explosives and grenades and rapid-fire machine guns. With each passing hour, more men were killed or wounded.

Whittlesey kept sending out pigeons carrying desperate requests for help. But one by one, the pigeons were shot or disappeared.

Finally, the next day, American planes appeared overhead. Whittlesey’s men cheered. They believed the planes would drop much-needed food, ammunition, and other supplies. But it wasn’t food and bullets those planes were dropping.

It was bombs.

Whittlesey understood with horror that the Americans didn’t realize that he and his men were in this part of the forest. The bombs were meant for the Germans, but instead, they were killing Whittlesey’s men.

The major frantically scrawled a message announcing their location in the woods and that they were under American attack.

The message ended with a plea: FOR HEAVEN’S SAKE, STOP IT.

A Feathered Missile

The Print Collector/Print Collector/Getty Images

ONE-WAY TRIP

Though carrier pigeons were effective messengers, they could only be used to send messages one way.

By this time, only two pigeons were left: Cher Ami and one other. It was the other pigeon that was pulled from the cage first. But the bird was so terrified that it flapped away before the message could be placed into its tube.

Now it was up to Cher Ami.

Hands reached into the cage and gently lifted her out. When the message was secure, she was set free. She fluttered up to a tree branch and perched there, rock still. It was as though she needed a moment to gather her courage.

And then she took off, like a tiny, feathered missile.

The sky was a storm of bullets and shards of bomb-shattered trees. Almost immediately, a bullet hit her in the eye. She began falling toward the ground, bleeding. But Cher Ami didn’t give up. She flapped her wings and rose skyward again.

Another bullet hit her, this time in her chest.

But she kept flying.

A third bullet struck her right leg and nearly tore it off.

But she kept flying.

Twenty minutes after she’d taken off, Cher Ami—bloodied, half-blind, with her leg hanging by a thread—arrived at headquarters with her message. The bombing was halted and soldiers were sent to rescue Whittlesey and his embattled men.

Meanwhile, medics worked feverishly to save Cher Ami’s life. Her leg had to be amputated, but Cher Ami survived. She was fitted with a tiny wooden leg. News of her miraculous journey spread around the world. She was awarded a medal and sent to America, where she was greeted as a hero who had saved the lives of nearly 200 men.

World War I ended five weeks after the last flight of Cher Ami. This terrible war caused death and suffering for people around the world. But in the midst of this misery emerged stories of great bravery and heroism. Like the story of Cher Ami, the courageous pigeon hero of World War I.

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Can't-Miss Teaching Extras
A Carrier Pigeon Cartoon

This engaging animated video will help your students dig even deeper into the fascinating world of World War I carrier pigeons—why they were necessary, how they worked, and the challenges they faced (like murderous hawks released by German soldiers!). 

Make a History Connection

Turn the article into a lesson on World War I with this photo-packed interactive website, which breaks down this vast and sometimes confusing topic into digestible chunks.

Virtual Museum Visit

After she died, Cher Ami was put on display at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History. Students can “visit” the heroic pigeon on this online exhibit page, which includes a photo slideshow and key facts.

More About the Story

Skills

Problem and solution, vocabulary, text evidence, key details, author’s purpose, text features, text structure, author’s craft, drawing conclusions, supporting an opinion, narrative and explanatory writing

Complexity Factors

Purpose

The article tells the story of a World War I battle in which a carrier pigeon played a vital role. It provides information about World War I and the incredible powers of carrier pigeons, and it conveys the idea that heroes can come in many forms. 

Structure

The article weaves together narrative and informational passages and includes cause-and-effect and problem-and-solution structures. Text features include extended captions that add additional information.

Language

The article includes challenging academic and domain-specific vocabulary (e.g., artillery, battalion, rampant), as well as metaphors and other figurative language.

Knowledge Demands 

The text refers to telegraphs, the chip in an iPhone, and the first Olympics. Some prior knowledge of World War I will also be helpful.

Step-by-Step Lesson Plan

1. Preparing to Read

Preview Text Features and Vocabulary; Watch a Video (40 minutes)

  • As a class, look at the main image and text on pages 4-5, then scan the other text features. Point out that the images show both real creatures and imaginary ones (in “Fantastic Beasts”). Prompt students to predict what the article will be about.
  • Point out to students that in the story the plural of squid is squid. Have them look at the word in captions and ask: Which squid is singular and which is plural?
  • Ask a student to read aloud the Up Close box on page 6.
  • Project the vocabulary slideshow to preview challenging domain-specific terms. Follow up with the vocabulary activity. Highlighted terms: tentacle, hallucinations, oceanographers, marine biologist, nerves, captivity, pod, sinewy

2. Close Reading

Read and Unpack the Text (45 minutes)

Read the article as a class or play the audio version at Storyworks Online. Have students read it a second time in small groups, answering the close-reading questions. Regroup to discuss the critical-thinking questions.

Close-Reading Questions

  • At the beginning of the article, author Lauren Tarshis writes, “The American soldiers were doomed.” What evidence does she give in the first section to support this statement? (text evidence) Tarshis explains that the Americans were surrounded by enemy German soldiers, were under fire from machine guns and being bombed, and had no working radios to call for help.
  • Based on the section “Incredible Powers,” what qualities make carrier pigeons skilled at carrying messages? (key details) Carrier pigeons are fast, smart, and good at finding their way home, even over very long distances.
  • Reread “Brutal Battles.” During World War I, what communication problem did pigeons help solve? (problem and solution) New long-distance communication technologies did not always work during wartime, especially in the middle of battles. Pigeons offered a more reliable way to send messages.
  • In “Mud, Rats, and Fear,” what details help you understand what life was like for soldiers living in the trenches? Why do you think Tarshis includes these details? (author’s purpose) Details include that the soldiers had to deal with deep mud, smelly garbage and waste, the noise of bombs and machine guns, and scurrying rats. Tarshis probably includes these details to help readers understand how scared, tired, and desperate the men were.
  • How does the sidebar “Animals in Wartime” add to your understanding of the article? (text features) The sidebar explains how other animals have been used in the military throughout history. This helps you understand that it isn’t only the carrier pigeon that has helped humans during wartime.
  • Reread the first three paragraphs of “Under Attack.” What problems did Major Whittlesey’s men face at the beginning of their battle against the Germans? (identifying problems) The men did not have enough ammunition, food, or water. They were exhausted and outnumbered by German soldiers. Many were being killed and wounded by artillery fire.
  • What new danger appears at the end of this section? How does this help you better understand the first section of the story? (text structure) At the end of the section, American planes begin bombing the Argonne forest, not realizing that Whittlesey and his men are below. This helps you understand one of the main reasons the Americans needed to send an urgent message in the first section— to stop their own planes from bombing them.
  • In the final section of the article, how does Tarshis create a feeling of excitement? Explain using specific details from the section. (author’s craft) To create excitement, Tarshis uses vivid figurative language such as “the sky was a storm of bullets.” She also uses very short paragraphs to draw the scene out, building suspense about whether Cher Ami will be able to make it through danger and complete her important mission.

Critical-Thinking Question

  • At the end of the article, Tarshis calls Cher Ami a “courageous pigeon hero.” In your own words, explain why Cher Ami was a hero, using examples from the story. (drawing conclusions) Cher Ami was a hero because she stayed calm and determined in the middle of a fierce battle. She bravely refused to give up on her mission, unlike other pigeons that flew away in fear. Even after being seriously injured, “she kept flying” and made it to the American headquarters with her life-saving message.
  • Based on the article and the “Animals in Wartime” sidebar, do you think it’s OK to use animals in the military? Why or why not? (supporting an opinion) Answers will vary. Some students may say yes, because these animals help win battles and keep humans safe. Others may say no, because animals should not be put in danger for the sake of humans.

3. Skill Building

Featured Skill: Problem and Solution

  • Distribute the problem and solution activity and have students complete it in groups. Then ask them to respond to the writing prompt at the bottom of page 9.
Differentiate and Customize
For Struggling Readers

Have students read the lower-Lexile version of the story in pairs, highlighting details about the soldiers’ main problem in one color and details about the solution using Cher Ami in another. Then come together to discuss what students highlighted.

For Advanced Readers

Guide students to watch our video “Beyond the Story: Into the World of Military Working Dogs.” Ask them to write a short essay comparing and contrasting the role of pigeons with the role of dogs in warfare, based on the article and the video.

For ELL Students

The story includes a number of domain-specific words related to warfare (e.g., ammunition, artillery, battalion) that may be difficult for ELLs. Before reading the article, go through these words together, using our vocabulary slideshow.

For Research

Have students choose one of the species featured in the “Animals in Wartime” sidebar and research a famous military animal of that species. They should then write a three-paragraph article about their chosen animal’s heroic deeds, using the Cher Ami story as a model.