The Midlands National Flying Club and the Royal Pigeon Racing Association have created an interactive educational project, Secret Messages, offering pupils the opportunity to learn about the vital work undertaken by carrier pigeons during the World Wars. Here, Donna Beard, who has raced pigeons for 14 years and delivers the lessons to schools, explains all
I’ve delivered the Secret Messages project to numerous schools across the UK, and to children of all ages. The pupils write their own simple coded messages and deliver them in the original canisters used during the Second World War. After showing the children how to handle a pigeon and attach the canister, we release the pigeons.
The point of the project is to give children a different perspective on the World Wars. In the history of Britain, many people have strived to make our country a better and safer place, yet we often forget that the homing pigeon played a huge role in emergencies during both conflicts. During the Second World War, more than a quarter of a million pigeons were donated by British fanciers to assist the war effort.
Re-enacting a real-life event helps children to better relate to historical events. Rather than just sitting and talking about carrier pigeons, pupils get to prepare messages and release the pigeons to fly back home.
The Secret Messages sessions have other benefits, too. In one presentation that lasts an hour, we cover lots of different subjects. For maths, students must work out how long the pigeons will take to travel home. For geography, children learn what landmarks the pigeons will fly over. Finally, for history and science, they learn about the role of pigeons in war and the homing instinct that makes the birds so useful.
We get fantastic feedback. For example, Emma Montague, Year 5 teacher at Sir Robert Hitcham’s CEVA Primary School in Framlingham, Suffolk, says: “The children responded really positively to the Secret Messages project. For many of them, being able to see and handle a pigeon was an experience in itself!
"It was also great to see the pigeons being 'loaded' with the secret messages to take back to their base camp for decoding, and the emails we received the next day with our messages decoded brought the experience full circle. It enhanced the learning we had done on the World War and helped the children to appreciate more fully the importance of pigeons and the difficulties faced with wartime communication.”
Apply to Flying Back to Nature for an experienced handler to visit your school with a small team of homing pigeons.