Celebrating SUKKOT 5780

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By: Efraim Harari

Pigeons that are used to send messages are called homing pigeons. These birds are domesticated and are selectively raised and trained to find their way home over extremely long distances. Homing pigeons have been documented flying as long as 1,100 miles! The training process begins by releasing the pigeon near home and gradually increasing the distance.

However, homing pigeons only work in one direction. They can only go back to one “mentally marked” point that they have identified as their home. So “pigeon post” can only work when the sender is actually holding the receiver's pigeon.

In order to send a message, one first needs to transport the pigeon to another person. When the other person has to send the first one a message, he places the message in a special lightweight case that is attached to the pigeon, and then he releases the pigeon. The bird will immediately fly “home” – to the first person.

Homing pigeons have been used to communicate over long distances since the time of the ancient Egyptians. They were also used extensively in both World War I and World War II, and had over a 90 percent successful delivery rate. Several pigeons even received medals for their service in delivering crucial messages during wartime!

Pigeons in the News

Reuters News, an international news agency, started its European business in 1850, using forty-five homing pigeons that carried the latest news from Germany to Belgium.


Pigeons and doves both belong to the Columbidae family, which includes over three hundred species of birds. The terms “pigeons” and “doves” are often used interchangeably, because the two birds are so similar. In Hebrew, both the dove and the pigeon are called yonah.

The dove is mentioned often in the Torah, and in a very positive light. It is probably best known for the role it played with Noach while in the tevah. That’s when it proved itself to be a reliable and trustworthy messenger. 

The Mabul lasted for forty days and nights, as heavy rains poured down upon the surface of the earth. Even after the rain ended, there was still water everywhere, so Noach, his family, and the animals could not leave thetevah.

Finally, the waters began to lessen. Noach sent out a dove from the tevah tosee if there was any sign of dry land, as it says, “Then he [Noach] sent out the dove from him, to see whether the waters had subsided…”(Beresheet 8:8). But water still covered the surface of the earth, so the dove returned to the tevah. Noach waited another seven days and then sent out the dove again.

This time, the pasuksays, was different: And the dove returned to him at evening time, and behold, an olive leaf was grasped in its mouth (ibid. 8:11).

When the dove brought back the olive leaf to Noach and his family, the message conveyed was very sharp and clear: An entire world had just been destroyed, true – but now, there would be a new start, a second chance.

The Radak comments that the dove has a natural gift for carrying or bringing back messages. We can see how this trait has been documented throughout history, as carrier pigeons are known to be excellent couriers, dispatching messages over long distances with amazing exactness.

How Homing Pigeons Find Their Way Home

Although scientists are unable to fully understand how homing pigeons navigate their way home across long distances with such astounding accuracy, there are several theories.

It is believed that homing pigeons have both compass and map mechanisms that help them navigate.
The compass mechanism helps them fly in the correct direction, while the map mechanism enables them to compare where they are to where they want to
go (home).

The pigeon’s compass mechanism likely relies upon the sun. Like many birds, homing pigeons can use the position and angle of the sun to determine the proper direction for their flight.

In regard to the map mechanism, some scientists believe that homing pigeons use magnetoreception, which involves relying on Earth's magnetic fields for guidance. Homing pigeons have concentrations of iron particles in their beaks, which scientists believe enable them to detect magnetic fields.

More recent research, however, suggests that homing pigeons may instead rely upon low-frequency sound waves to find their way home. These waves, which human ears cannot hear but birds can, emanate from the Earth itself: from the oceans, through the Earth’s crust, and even in the atmosphere.

The theory is that pigeons use these sound waves to generate acoustic maps of their surroundings, and that's how they find their way home even when
they are released miles away.