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Katara: Sokka, tell me you didn't buy a bird.
Before the advent of the telegraph, pigeon post was the only way to deliver messages relatively quickly over great distances. A message written on light paper could be inserted into a tube attached to the homing pigeon's leg, and it would carry it over a thousand kilometers and several days to its destination.
As useful as pigeon post proved to be during the siege of Paris in the Franco-Prussian War, this method of communication possessed some considerable drawbacks: the homing pigeons' capacity to reliably deliver messages was entirely dependent upon their ability to locate their nest and mate. Thus, the pigeons had to first be transported from their nesting location to the senders' location (via slower-than-pigeon transit), and once released, the bird would fly straight to its home and not budge thereafter; for mutual conversation, both parties needed either several pigeons transported in the other's location to send home, or some means of retrieving them after sending a message. Homing pigeons were also prone to getting lost or eaten by predators during particularly difficult journeys, which necessitated sending the same message with several pigeons, some or all of which could fall into the hands of a third party. Indeed, the Germans even trained falcons to do specifically this during the aforementioned siege.
In fiction, the delivery time is considerably shorter and pigeons always get the messages through. Unless you're the sort of person that wants a whole section on pigeons and having the plot grind to a halt if one dies, no-one likes the realistic version.
This trope gets its name from the concept of Instant Messaging in computing. Considering that you don't even need a computer to work an Instant Messenger Pigeon, it's no wonder the Medieval Stasis is still in effect. For another example of animals not quite working that way, see Automaton Horses.
Anime & Manga
- Played straight in Last Exile, when a messenger pigeon finds Sophia aboard a friggin' airship. Fair enough, pigeon post was occasionally used to deliver messages to ships in nearby waters and other mobile destinations, but it would have been appreciated if the pigeon were looking for the dovecote instead of, you know, Sophia.
- In Hokuto no Ken, a traveler pigeon fins Falco in the middle of the Land of the Asura, located across the sea. Somehow.
- One issue of Conan the Barbarian has a particularly horrendous example. A mole in Conan's army was sending messages by pigeons to her employer, the enemy. Conan outwits them because, as it turns out, he's had archers intercept and shoot down the pigeon, read the message, then put the message on another pigeon and send off so the enemy wouldn't suspect anything. Gee, good thing pigeons come with standardised directions these days, yeah?
- A recent album of the Lucky Luke series, Lucky Luke vs Pinkerton, as Pinkerton using an Instant Messenger Vulture. It once delivers a help message to Luke, without any hint of where the cowboy could be. Smart bird.
- The Tintin adventure The Blue Lotus showed the villain Mitsuhirato receiving and sending messages by homing pigeon.
Films — Animation
- Played for laughs in Asterix and the Vikings, where Justforkix's pet pigeon Shortmessageservix is trained to send messages like a mobile phone. His coos and warbles even sound like touch-tone dialling.
- Played straight in Valiant, though in a rare case of having done the research there actually were German predator birds chasing the pigeons.
Films — Live-Action
- The Mummy Returns featured an Instant Messenger Falcon named "Horus", used to communicate with the leaders of the Medjai. Apparently, Horus is smart enough to track down the leaders of a group of nomads, then return to a group of adventurers who are wandering all over the Middle East. The bird eventually gets shot out of the sky by The Dragon, though.
- It's highly exaggerated by the movie, since they generally don't have to do it when the owner isn't staying in one place, but well-trained falcons can fly long distances and then return to their owner.
- The Dinotopia miniseries (and the books it was based on) features small dino-parrots which memorize verbal messages to be sent to others on the island. Justified as the Messenger Bird in the miniseries are clearly sapient, and the Dimorphodon in the books probably are too.
- Parodied in Robin Hood: Men in Tights. When the Merry Men get some info in Nottingham, they wonder how to get it to Sherwood Forest. One of them then says, "We'll fox it to them!" Followed by them attaching the message to a fox, which oddly ran off making dolphin sounds.
- In The Great Race reporter Maggie DuBois uses homing pigeons to deliver her stories to the newspaper sponsoring the race. The pigeons return directly to the newspaper building, not their dovecots, and reach it almost immediately even though they're crossing most of the U.S. to get there.
- Top Secret. The traitor Nigel uses homing pigeons to send messages to the East German government. Played for laughs, as the pigeons are shown wearing aviator's helmets.
- The Discworld book Monstrous Regiment appears to use messenger pigeons properly. They are sent over short distances from a traveling remote reporter to the Ankh-Morpork Times stationary base in Borogravia. The birds are frequently waylaid (especially by the Morporkian military) and long-distance and two-way communication is handled exclusively by semaphore telegraph.
- Previous books, however, have explained that Ankh-Morporkian pigeons can be trained for two-way traffic. Apparently they're brighter than regular pigeons, although Commander Vimes says there are types of fungus brighter than regular pigeons. The pigeons used by the Watch can seek out a specific officer, regardless of where he is.
- A lot of the animals in Ankh-Morpork are a bit brighter than they should be. In the case of the rats, and at least one of the dogs, this is explicitly stated as being because of the magical radiation from Unseen University (the in-series version of nuclear waste).
- Note that some thieves in The Colour Of Magic used a "homing rat" to send a message. It's unclear if this is a regular rat trained to track the recipient down by smell, a magic-enhanced rat as per above, or even some fantastical species of rodent, unique to the Disk, that shares pigeons' homing instincts.
- The Pointless Albatross can evidently be trained to carry messages between distant continents.
- Probably justified in Harry Potter, as the owls could very easily be enchanted or supernaturally bred. There have also been cases of mail being stolen.
- Also averted in the Ministry of Magic, where messages from one department to another took the form of paper airplanes.
Mr. Weasley: We used to use owls, but the mess was terrible. You can imagine the droppings...
- George R. R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire has ravens; though they can only reach established outposts like Riverrun or Castle Black, they're still uncannily quick and unerring about it. Martin has admitted the ravens are a product of Rule of Cool. (Real Life ravens are very smart birds, mind, but pigeons have them beat on directions.)
- Slightly subverted in that messenger ravens are shot down regularly by everyone, including people who just want to eat them. It's also hinted that the ravens suffer from the same single-destination limitations as real-life messenger pigeons.
- The Wizard Derk, in Dark Lord of Derkholm and Year of the Griffin by Diana Wynne Jones, breeds very clever pigeons, who are smart enough to know where people are, and very devoted to getting there.
- Used rather straight, but justified, in Hell's Gate by David Weber and Linda Evans. The messenger birds are super-fast, can be set to any destination, and are quite unlikely to be intercepted — but they're not pigeons, they're giant humming birds enhanced by powerful magic to be perfect for their role. And they do move at finite speed, which is Arcana's major disadvantage against their opponents (who must make do with mundane technology instead magic, but do have telepaths).
- Used and justified in almost exactly the same form as above in the Heralds of Valdemar books by Mercedes Lackey. Mages occasionally send hummingbird messengers; again, their speed and flexible addressing is chalked up to magical enhancement.
- In the story Count Beet, the captive princess distracts the Count (by telling him to count his stock of beets, which is a serious plot point and provides the Count with his eventual name), and sends out, in succession, three tiny creatures with a message for the prince who's trying to find her. The creatures include a honeybee and possibly a bird (can't recall). Two of them get eaten, and finally the third manages to slip past security and find the Prince. Of course, this is a fairy tale, so the bug is actively looking for the guy and has enough intelligence to locate him.
- Well averted in Stephen Donaldson's novel,"The Mirror of her Dreams", wherein Terisa Morgan, the protagonist from Earth, desperately lectures her Fantasy World interrogator on the limitations of Earth homing pigeons (one-way communication, not two-way); he's never heard of them and suspects her of using pigeons to pass messages, even though SHE alerted HIM to the method. Unfortunately, the only person around who could corroborate this is the Big Bad (who did, indeed, get the idea and the pigeons from Earth, but is unlikely to speak up for her).
- The Rain Wilds Chronicles, part of the Realm of the Elderlings sequence, has a framing story told via letters between two pigeon handlers. Here, the concept was handled pretty well. The pigeons are used by a pair of interdependent cities to communicate, and are sent to various coops by boat. The pigeon handlers get reprimanded at one point for using such an expensive system for personal letters, and important letters are sent with several pigeons.
- Dragonriders of Pern has the fire lizards, which are especially useful for this due to the fact that they can teleport.
- In The Bride Wore Black Leather, ravens bearing messages keep turning up in John Taylor's office, despite its lack of a window. Subverted in that his secretary Cathy thinks it's cruel to use birds this way, so refuses to answer the messages until the spells that compel the ravens have expired, at which point she finds them good homes.
- Used a little more realistically in the Pushing Daisies episode "Pigeon", since the bird in question only had to travel back and forth between two locations.
- Except the bird presumably nested in one location and thus flew there, was given a note, and... flew back to where it had been. They were in theory using one single bird to communicate over the course of years.
- The bird had one of its wings replaced by a stuffed parrot's wing that was attached with a bejeweled harness. Where it nested was the least of its problems.
- Allo Allo used a "long-distance duck". Of course, it's dubious as to whether the duck even made it out of the city.
- Played with in Blackadder Goes Forth. Blackadder kills a messenger pigeon and eats it to remove any evidence of receiving suicidal orders, in order to have a plausible explanation for not following them. Unfortunately for him, General Melchett is personally familiar with the pigeon, and is able to recognise its remaining feather — and the message it was carrying was an announcement that shooting messenger pigeons has been made a capital offense due to the number of orders not getting through.
- Done on Jack of All Trades, but with a talking parrot.
- Parodied in The Monkees episode "Monkee See, Monkee Die". The boys are fogged in a haunted mansion and talk about using a homing pigeon to get a message out, and one conveniently lands on the windowsill. The note on it's leg says "please don't attach notes to my leg, I am not a carrier pigeon."
- A Game of Thrones seems to go back and forth with this trope. In the earlier episodes, messenger ravens seemed to able to come and go at amazingly fast speeds. However, this is averted when Robb sets up camp outside of The Twins, where he has his men shoot down every Raven the Freys attempt to send out to keep them from warning the Lannisters of their presence.
- In Final Fantasy VI, it's implied that a pigeon could reach a brand-new, secret military base without much effort, and carrying silk bouquets from an obscure cave in the mountains and returning is downright overt.
- In the first and second Star Ocean game for the SNES, party members could learn to use messenger pigeons to deliver a shopping list and required money to a store. No matter where the party was, the bird would always return with the requested items, whether the party was in a forest, in a cave, or in another dimension!
- Foiled if you are missing the appropriate perk/attribute/etc. Have a different character send the bird if this happens.
- The second game had it as well.
- Genesis LPMud, as a fantasy RPG, could get away with Instant Messenger Pigeons. And then Instant Messenger Spiders were implemented for the Drow to send quick communications underground. And then the goblinoids got Instant Messenger Slave Children. Like the pigeons and spiders, the slave children could optionally be killed and eaten by the message recipient.
- One caller to Chatterbox who is the head of an organization trying to get people to stop using phones, says that the group has had to resort to homing pigeons, who keep disappearing. Later on a redneck calls in saying that pigeons make a good meal, and sometimes they "come with notes attached, just like a fortune cookie with wings."
- Done in Mother 3 with Hinawa's letter to Flint; the pigeon is even patiently sleeping outside Flint's door when he gets to it.
- This is probably too brief a moment to be classified definitively as either being played straight or averted; that pigeon doesn't have to fly far, is only seen once, and given the distance takes kind of a while to get there.
- Another messenger pigeon is seen later in the game, but we never see it reach its destination (and given that the non-plot-critical nature of the message, it doesn't matter tremendously either way.)
- My Sims Kingdoms has a pigeon that works opposite to real life; no matter where in the world you and your friends are, it will find you with messages from the King and then return home.
- The Sims Medieval has a pigeon mailbox that acts pretty much the same as a normal mailbox/telephone in The Sims. For example, if your monarch sends a pigeon-delivered invite to foreign dignitaries, they will be on the castle doorstep within the hour.
- In Eternal Sonata, Claves sends a dove to Baroque to deliver the message to Prince Crescendo that Princess Serenade is a Forte spy. Not only does the dove make it safely, but it survives the bitter cold to land neatly upon Crescendo's window.
- The dove passes over Polka and company on its way. Polka remarks that it's strange to see a dove flying over a snowy mountain. Lampshading, perhaps?
- In the Assassin's Creed series, this is played pretty straight, as Al-Mualim sends pigeons to the various assassin bureaus (which is also where the feathers come from), and Ezio receives messages from these as plot points and for side missions in an area.
- Understandable in Golden Sun: The Lost Age, where the pigeon is being sent from the house of Piers's uncle to another character's home in Lemuria; there are so few people around, and Piers, Lunpa, and King Hydros all seem to be close enough that it's believable they'd have pigeon contacts for each other.
- There is no excuse in Dark Dawn for Isaac to be sending Kraden's own pigeon back to him, after Kraden sent it to Goma Plateau with a message for Isaac, especially since Kraden was traveling at the time. He later sends it to take a message to Piers, even though Piers is also traveling. Lampshaded when Tyrell mentions he wouldn't know where to find Piers.
- In Suikoden IV, the Gaien Marine Knights Academy keeps several messenger birds for communicating with other islands. According to the game map, there aren't too many places for the poor things to land during their flights back and forth... Not that it matters much, given that the whole flock gets slaughtered shortly before a surprise attack.
- Mister Ramada also has a pet hawk that can act as a messenger. The final war sequence and the climax of the game is kicked off by it delivering a vital message, requiring it to find a ship somewhere in the middle of the ocean while injured severely enough for it to die immediately after delivery.
- Bird Pokémon are used for this all over the franchise. This is more justified than some examples because Flying-type Pokémon are much tougher than actual pigeons, and are also fully sapient and understand human speech.
- Related: In Girl Genius, Agatha tries to send out several little propeller clanks to send a message to someone, and three of them are destroyed before ever making it off the castle grounds by one of the Geisterdamen's many albino beasties. One escapes, but we have yet to know if it ever made successfully made contact with anyone. Given the level of miss-communication between the two sides, probably not. Also, the tiny clanks were smart enough to take orders and make escape plans.
- Spoofed in this Cyanide and Happiness comic.
- In Strays, Feral gets a messenger hawk. Which can, apparently, track him down personally, since he's on the move.
- In The Adventures of Shan Shan, the messenger is a bird. Presumably magic, thereby evading most of the problems.
- Played completely straight in Avatar: The Last Airbender, episode "The Blue Spirit", in which despite the fact that Commander Zhao is visiting someone else's command, the messenger hawk flies directly to him. And at exactly the right plot-appropriate moment. Smart hawks.
- Played (almost) straight in Hanna-Barbera's Dastardly and Muttley in Their Flying Machines. Yankee Doodle Pigeon was pursued by Dick Dastardly and crew.
- The Goodfeathers spend some time as one of these in an episode of Animaniacs. Turns out they're not that good at it. Oddly, a German fighter pilot was able to try to shoot them down. They eventually make it to the destination after at one point figuring that walking would be safer. They're too late with the message, anyway.
- Justified (in a sense) in Rocky and Bullwinkle. Boris needs to get a message to HQ, which is an inconvenient trip across the ocean away. Since he can't reach his radio, he instead writes a message and sends it via a messenger pigeon - a messenger pigeon with a jet engine attached to its back.
- Truth in Television, at least in South Africa. According to this article, a homing pigeon beat the main internet provider in delivering 4 GB of data.
- The Australian TV show Hungry Beast tested this too. The pigeon won.
- Heck, in any country, DSL or bottom-tier cable Internet would take longer than that pigeon to deliver 4GB, especially if the sender is also a client with a home connection (which usually cap uploads at a much lower speed than downloads). The real embarrassment was how much the pigeon beat the South African Internet by (it was still sitting at 2% when the pigeon arrived).
- This is a concept known as a sneakernet. It's almost universally faster due to the relatively high density of storage versus network speeds. While it's commonly seen as a trivial exercise, in high-security applications or where massive amounts of data are involved, data couriers are used.
- Google uses sneakernets to transfer data, in come cases into the petabyte (~1,000,000 gigabytes) range, and many military and high-security commercial systems utilizes an air-gap (physically disconnected) where updates and data output have to be transferred by physically moving data storage.
Anime & Manga
- Naruto averted this trope, by actually having the pigeon taking several days to reach its destination.
- One would wonder why they didn't just send an IM.
- Averted in Buddha, where Naradatta convinces Tatta to possess an animal in a desperate attempt to contact his mentor, Asita. In between third party interceptions, exhaustion, and being attacked by predators, Tatta possesses several animals and ends up killing nearly all of them. When Asita finally gets the message, his first reaction is to severely punish Naradatta for being so reckless with the lives of animals.
- Averted heavily in The Lost Battalion. Every time the titular battalion tries to send a messenger pigeon back to headquarters, the Germans quickly shoot them down. It's only through sheer luck that they manage to get one through the German lines.
- Averted to some extent in Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time. Few details are given, but messenger birds do seem to get eaten or intercepted on a regular basis.
- Averted in James Clavell's Asian Saga novel Shōgun: Daimyo will send several pigeons at once to ensure that a message gets through, and rival daimyo will try to intercept them with archers or specially-trained hawks.
- The new BBC Robin Hood, not normally noted for realism, got homing pigeons pretty much right in the episode "Lardner's Ring". The fact that a given pigeon always flies to one destination is clearly explained (as is the fact that the destination is the pigeon's nest and mate, leading one of the characters to produce a soppy metaphor about True Love in a later episode), and the villains try to bring the pigeon down with arrows and a hunting hawk. (The natural hazards are somewhat underplayed, however: it's more or less implied that once the pigeon is out of range of the villains, it's home free.)
- Though the pigeon never does seem to get to King Richard, and eventually the outlaws go to the King themselves.
- Averted to the point of inversion in one episode of the French comedic series Kaamelott. The Knights of the Round Table use pigeons to send important messages, but the birds seem to take their time and sometimes the messages are several months old, causing great confusion. Pondering about this, King Arthur finally concludes that "our pigeons are just dumb..."
- Warhammer: The Empire uses pigeons as weapons (like a messenger but with bombs), however if there is a change, it will completely miss its target or just go right back to its master...
- In the Infocom Interactive Fiction game Sherlock Holmes and the Riddle of the Crown Jewels, at one point you have to rent a messenger pigeon. Said pigeon is only interested in shiny objects of a certain color, and furthermore only returns to its owner when released.
- Order of the Stick: Vaarsuvius develops the spell "Greater Animal Messenger": it sends three messenger birds that couldn't deviate from the path or be affected by illusions, and would verbally repeat a message once they got within five feet of their target. Vaarsuvius made it clear that the absurd amount of time and lost sleep has assured success. The birds were, of course, shot down with arrows and eaten by their intended recipients.
- Earlier averted when Vaarsuvius's familiar (a raven) is being utilised to transmit information on a bandit camp instantly to Vaarsuvius. Unfortunately, the bandits hit it with a thousand arrows the moment it flies over (to Haley's exasperated cry "Oh come on! Thousands of birds must fly over every day!")
- Dominic Deegan does it without the pigeon.
- Tales of the Questor averts it twice. The first time, the bird gets eaten by a hawk, the second time, a bird refuses to go out into cold weather.
- Third time, they send back a mechanical bird — which ends its flight by diving through a window and concussing him.
- Archipelago gives us "poot owls," bird-shaped magical messengers which presumably function much better than an ordinary pigeon but are capable of being intercepted or destroyed by enemy magic, as shown here.
- Lampshaded in the Avatar: The Last Airbender episode "The Runaway", when Sokka purchases a Messenger Hawk only to discover it didn't come with a manual. Telling it to take a message to "Gran-Gran, South Pole" doesn't help, though by the end of the episode it seems to have developed a magical GPS service for Toph's parents, though they at least live in a town and not the south pole. To be fair, there hasn't been any evidence yet that Hawky actually successfully delivered the message.
- Also subverted two episodes earlier when another Messenger Hawk was intercepted by a trained eagle/vulture-like bird and the message is destroyed.
- There was also an instant where someone falsely claimed to have sent a message and the person they were talking to was perfectly willing to believe it had been lost, so they said next time they'll send two.
- The Venture Brothers utilized an aversion of this with a messenger butterfly. The Monarch tries to send a covert message to his henchmen while in prison on the wing of a butterfly, which is immediately intercepted and eaten by a one Mr. Tiny Eagle.
- The Internet Engineering Task Force often publishes spoof standards documents on April Fool's Day. One of these was "A Standard for the Transmission of IP Datagrams on Avian Carriers", ie, a document proposing a standardized way to send Internet traffic via homing pigeon. In 2001, a group in Norway tried it out and determined that it had severe problems with latency and packet loss.
- Perhaps referenced, intentionally or not, by the IM client formerly known as gAIM, now Pidgin. The name is both a reference to this trope (their client logo is in fact a purple pigeon) and the linguistics term "pidgin"; is a proto-language consisting of mixed vocabulary and grammar from multiple languages used in the same place/time. As a name for an IM client capable of connecting simultaneously to multiple IM protocols, it makes perfect sense.
- Several messenger pigeons were carried across the English Channel during the D-Day invasion by war correspondents. After Reuters reporter Charles Lynch let his birds go, carrying his reports of the action, most of them flew in the wrong direction — inland. He cursed them for traitors, but they ignored him.
- Sometimes a pigeon could be trained to go back and forth between two locations, one counting as "home" and the other being a major food source, but moving on.