Filtering by Tag: INVESTIGATIONS

Sexing a Pigeon

Awhile back, I wrote that I’d be sharing the latest developments that I have regarding my investigation into the sexing of a war hero pigeon named Cher Ami who may be a hen or a cock. This issue is important for several reasons, including that the bird is identified as a cock at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, where the bird is stuffed and on display. If the plaque that identifies the bird as a male is incorrect, it matters, given how many people visit there every year: 4.3M visitors in 2018, apparently. In any case, here’s an email I got from a reader and fellow Person Interested in Cher Ami—I hereby christen us: PICAs—who came across my posts: Dr. Marianne M. Gilchrist. Also, I’m excited to report I’ve gotten a very interesting lead from the National Archives. So, more to come. Thank you, Dr. Gilchrist! You can find the full thread of my Cher Ami posts here.

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Email subject header: Cher Ami the Pigeon

Date: November 17, 2018

Hi, Susannah!

Having recently discovered Cher Ami's story, and your blog thread on her, and being very fond of pigeons, I just thought I'd add an observation on gender:

While it's difficult to be sure, given that the bird is stuffed, and taxidermists can change an animal's shape, my suspicion is she's a hen. Cock pigeons are chunkier and tend to have a thicker neck, with thicker feathers that they can puff out as a ruff in courtship dances. Cher Ami's neck is more slender. Cocks also have bigger ceres (the white 'nose') above their beaks.

I found these images online that demonstrate sex dimorphism in pigeons. Cher Ami looks to me more like a girl pidgie.

best wishes,

Marianne

pigeons-1.jpg
pigeons-2.jpg

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[My reply on January 17, 2019]

Thanks, Marianne, and apologies for the delayed response. Would you mind if I posted your email on my blog? I could use your name or not.

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[Dr. Gilchrist’s reply on January 18, 2019]

Hi!

Yes! I've also read that she was discovered to be a hen when she was stuffed.

I wonder if the stresses of war had stopped her laying eggs? She was an adult bird.

best,

Marianne

Enjoy my work? Buy "The Tumor." It’s been called "a masterpiece of short fiction."

About That Pigeon

Some time back, I got interested in trying to figure out if a war hero pigeon that’s stuffed at the Smithsonian is a cock or a hen. In the interim, I’ve gotten various emails from various people, from a bird expert to a pigeon fancier to a fan, and I’ll be updating this blog with that information in the coming days and weeks.

Buy my short story "The Tumor" — it’s been called "a masterpiece of short fiction."

Cher Ami or Chere Ami?

Last week, I recounted my ongoing investigation into the gender of a World War I carrier pigeon named Cher Ami, who saved the lives of almost 200 American soldiers in the Argonne Forest. According to the Smithsonian, where the stuffed bird stands on display today, the bird was a cock. But according to Wikipedia, an autopsy revealed Cher Ami was a hen. So which one was right?

I googled around to find out more. I landed on this page of the United States Army Communications-Electronics Command (CECOM) website. Oddly, at some point since my investigation began, the page started returning a "Not Found" message. But you can find the original version of the page here, thanks to the Wayback Machine.

According to the CECOM page, Cher Ami was Chere Ami (see: the tab). A girl.

CHER AMI
Identification: N.U.R.P. No. 615, Black Check Hen
War Record: Delivered twelve important messages from the Verdun front to loft at Rampont. Average distance thirty kilometers. Average time, twenty-four minutes. Returned on last occasion with leg shot away, message tube containing important document hanging by tendon. Missile which carried away leg also passed through breast. Wonderful vitality of bird enabled it to recover quickly. In this seriously wounded condition, "Cher Ami" flew forty kilometers in twenty-five minutes, being liberated at 2:30 PM, arriving at loft at 3:00 PM. Point of liberation was Grand Pre.
General Information: "Cher Ami" was returned to the United States with other distinguished pigeons on the transport "Ohioan" on April 16, 1919. She lived only a short time after her historic flight, dying at Camp Alfred Vail, New Jersey, on June 13, 1919. Her body was mounted and placed in the Smithsonian Institution, U.S. National Museum, Washington, DC, where it is now on exhibition.
The French "Croix de Guerre" was bestowed upon a very few pigeons during World War I, 1914-1918. "Cher Ami" received this Croix de Guerre with palm (citation a l'orde de l'Armee) for playing an important part in the communications between the Forts of Verdun, surrounded by the Germans during several months service.

Armed with this information, I contacted the Smithsonian. Wouldn't they want to know the famous bird they'd identified as a war hero wasn't male, as their exhibit label claimed, but female?

Next, I'll share what the Smithsonian said.

What She Found at the Smithsonian

Was a famous war hero pigeon male, as many believed, or female, as an autopsy purported to have proved? If you've been following along this week, you've joined me on my journey to figure out if Cher Ami, who saved the lives of nearly 200 American soldiers during the Battle of the Argonne Forest, was a cock or a hen.

Wikipedia claimed Cher Ami was a she. But the Smithsonian website claimed Cher Ami was a he. So which one was it?

To found out if the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History in Washington, DC, billed the taxidermied Cher Ami on permanent view in "The Price of Freedom: Americans at War" as male or female, I hired a young DC-based journalist, Laura Wagner, who writes for Slate and NPR, to go to the museum. (You can read about how I found Laura and review our exchange here.)

Laura headed down to the museum the same day I hired her.

A few hours after I enlisted her, she filed her report -- via DM on Twitter.

She wrote:

"You were right. The plaque identifies Cher Ami as a male"

She included photographic proof.

Photo credit:  Laura Wagner

Photo credit: Laura Wagner

Photo credit:  Laura Wagner

Photo credit: Laura Wagner

Photo credit:  Laura Wagner

Photo credit: Laura Wagner

The museum label read:

Cher Ami, one of 600 carrier pigeons deployed by the U.S. Army Signal Corps, was awarded the French Croix de Guerre with Palm for his heroic service.

His heroic service. But what if Cher Ami was really a she? If that was the case, she had stood behind that glass for years, as adults and children had admired the war hero pigeon ... who was really a girl.

Next week, I'll share what I learned from the Army about the curious case of Cher Ami.

 

The Smithsonian and the Case of the War Hero Pigeon

If you've been following along this week, you know the story of Cher Ami. World War I. Carrier pigeon. Saves the lives of nearly 200 American soldiers. Returns to America a decorated war hero. Dies months later due to battlefield injuries. Autopsy reveals ... this cock is a hen?

According to the famous bird's Wikipedia entry, Cher Ami is still widely believed to be a male, but is really a female. To this day, the Smithsonian insists Cher Ami is a cock. Which one is it? I wondered. The Smithsonian's website posits Cher Ami is a boy. And Cher Ami, taxidermied, is on display at the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History. So you'd think they'd know, right?

I needed someone to go to the museum and see if the plaque where Cher Ami stands claims the bird is a male. Because if Cher Ami is really a female, not a male, I wanted to tell the Smithsonian that, and I wanted to tell them to set the record straight. I mean, wouldn't you?

But I wasn't in DC. And I wasn't sure who I knew in DC would want to go to the museum and find out. I figured maybe a young journalist would want to do something like that, if I paid her. And I knew Slate was in DC. So I googled: "Slate intern LinkedIn." And Laura Wagner was the first name to pop up in the results. You can read her work for Slate here and her work for NPR here. I located Laura on Twitter, followed her, and asked her to follow me, so I could DM her.

Here's what I wrote:

Hey Laura. I'm a freelance journalist based in FL. Recently I got interested in the story of Cher Ami, a war pigeon who turned out to be a girl http://americanhistory.si.edu/collections/search/object/nmah_425415 …. I'm interested to know if the permanent exhibit where Cher Ami's stuffed body is on view at the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History in DC misidentifies her as a boy: http://americanhistory.si.edu/collections/search/object/nmah_425415 …. Any interest in making $100 going down there and taking a look for me, maybe snapping a few pics? I assume it misidentifies her but wanted to confirm. I thought maybe since journalist + DC, you might be interested. Thanks!

Here's what she wrote:

Hey Susannah, cool story! I'm in. I'm leaving for New York early tomorrow morning but I'm free this afternoon so I'll go down and look at the exhibit later today. Just curious, did someone give you my name or?

I wrote:

Terrific! Thanks so much. No one gave me your name, but I thought if perhaps I googled Slate intern linkedin, I might find someone who'd be interested. You were the first result. She should be in "The Price of Freedom: Americans at War" exhibit, and I'm curious to know: if she's on view and if there's some sort of written text that identifies her by gender. If you can snap a few pics of her and any text you find, that'd be great. I'll also add the cost of admission.

And she wrote:

Ah good ol' linkedin! Ok, sounds good. I'll be in touch when I'm back

I responded with this GIF.

Now all I had to do was wait.

Come back tomorrow, and I'll tell you what Laura found at the museum.

The Mysterious Gender of Cher Ami

I've been writing here about my fascination with Cher Ami, a famous carrier pigeon who saved the lives of nearly 200 men during World War II. What's clear is that Cher Ami was a war hero. What's not clear is whether Cher Ami was a boy or a girl.

Here's what Wikipedia has to say:

Sex and color
Originally registered as a Black Check cock, Cher Ami was a Blue check, and she was discovered after death upon taxidermy procedure to be a hen. She is still erroneously represented as a cock bird at the National Museum of American History and by many other educational and military history information sources.

Apparently, Cher Ami, who, despite having been "shot through the breast, blinded in one eye, covered in blood and with a leg hanging only by a tendon," delivered a message that saved the lives of American soldiers, was not male, as everyone had thought, but female

Online, I found that, indeed, as Wikipedia notes, the Smithsonian, where a taxidermied Cher Ami stands in a glass case on permanent display in the National Museum of American History's "The Price of Freedom: Americans at War" exhibit (as pictured here), an organization that prides itself on its expertise in American history and therefore getting it right, refers to Cher Ami as "he" on its website.

"Cher Ami" was a registered Black Check Cock carrier pigeon, one of 600 birds owned and flown by the U.S. Army Signal Corps in France during World War I.
He delivered 12 important messages within the American sector at Verdun, France. On his last mission, "Cher Ami," shot through the breast by enemy fire, managed to return to his loft. A message capsule was found dangling from the ligaments of one of his legs that also had been shattered by enemy fire. The message he carried was from Major Whittlesey's "Lost Battalion" of the 77th Infantry Division that had been isolated from other American forces. Just a few hours after the message was received, 194 survivors of the battalion were safe behind American lines.

"Cher Ami" was awarded the French "Croix de Guerre" with Palm for his heroic service between the forts of Verdun. He died in 1919 as a result of his battle wounds. "Cher Ami" was later inducted into the Racing Pigeon Hall of Fame in 1931 and received a gold medal from the Organized Bodies of American Racing Pigeon Fanciers in recognition of his extraordinary service during World War I.

But, I wondered, did the exhibit itself name Cher Ami as male or female?

Tomorrow, I'll share what I learned when I hired an emissary to go to the Museum and find out.

The Hero Pigeon

Yesterday, I started writing about a hero war pigeon and whether or not said pigeon is a male (cock) or female (hen). Here's more of that story.

I wish I could remember how I came across the story of Cher Ami, but I can't. I can tell you where I was. I was on Martha's Vineyard. Edgartown, to be exact. I'd been picked to do a writing residency there. This was last September. It sounded terrific, but something wasn't right. I was working on a novel; maybe that was it. Or maybe it was the tiny desk with the tiny uncomfortable chair wedged into the small space between the bed and the window that faced Main Street. Or maybe it was the preppy WASPs attending weddings down the road and the gross elitism crawling the streets and the general feeling that if you weren't from old money you were nobody. Or maybe it was the novel. I'd reached an impasse, and I wasn't sure where to go, and I was stuck on an island that I'd gotten on a terrifyingly small plane to reach with nothing else to do.

Either way, at some point, I was wandering around the internet, and I found Cher Ami. Some of you probably know who Cher Ami is. Some of you don't. Cher Ami was a famous carrier pigeon who saved the Lost Battalion during the Battle of Argonne in 1918. Several hundred soldiers were trapped behind enemy lines. They were being hunted by Germans and under friendly fire. The men launched a series of carrier pigeons, in hopes of delivering the coordinates that could save their lives. The first pigeon was shot down. The second pigeon was shot down. Then Cher Ami took flight. The message Cher Ami carried read:

"WE ARE ALONG THE ROAD PARALELL 276.4. OUR AR ILLERY IS DROPPING A BARRAGE DIRECTLY ON US. FOR HEAVENS SAKE STOP IT."

The Germans took aim at Cheri Ami and shot down the bird. Somehow, despite having been shot in the chest and a leg nearly blown off completely, the pigeon was able to get airborne again, reach division headquarters, deliver the message, and save nearly 200 men.

Cher Ami was awarded the Croix de Guerre Medal and returned home a war hero. Sadly, the bird died less than a year later, due to injuries suffered during battle.

After Cher Ami's death, an autopsy was performed. Which raised an interesting question that continues to be debated to this day:

Was Cher Ami a boy or a girl?

I'll be continuing this series tomorrow and talking about what I've found out in my investigation thus far.