The Broader Picture: To do or fly

THE EIGHTH Transmission Regiment, which is stationed at Mont Valerien, near Paris, is the last regiment in France to rear military carrier pigeons. The 150 pigeons are bred and trained at the base for the sake of maintaining tradition: they no longer fulfil any military purpose, but are kept for racing.

Ouvrard, sergeant-in-charge of the dovecotes, explains that the pigeons begin to fly when they are 20 days old. At three months they will begin to race. When their sporting careers are over, after about eight years, they are used as breeders. They can live for 20 years.

As well as the dovecotes, there is a museum on the base, which details the long history of carrier pigeons. The bird has a strong homing instinct, and uses the sun, the stars and the Earth's magnetic field to navigate. It can cover up to 1,000km in 24 hours. Female pigeons flying in search of their young will continue until they die of exhaustion. Male pigeons in search of their mate will do the same.

The homing pigeon was used by the ancient Greeks to dispatch the results of the Olympic Games. Three millennia later, during the Second World War, about 300,000 carrier pigeons were used to get messages to Britain from the French Resistance. British pigeons would be dropped over occupied France in baskets tied to parachutes. Members of the Resistance would find and release the birds, sending them back with messages. In the Mont Valerien museum there are examples of anti-raptor whistles used during the D-Day operations: the whistles were connected to the tails of the British military pigeons to repel the falcons sent after them by the Germans.

The museum also honours the memory of historic pigeons. One, named "Vaillant" ("Valiant"), was awarded a posthumous medal for heroism during the First World War. Vaillant flew through clouds of poison gas to deliver the final message from the besieged Fort de Veaux, dying only moments after completing his mission.