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TODAY’S FOCUS: Hi-Tech French Army Still Has Faithful Pigeons

December 13, 1985

SURESNES, France (AP) _ Atop Mount Valerien, France’s last line of military defense waits in its coops. In the hinterlands, their feathered friends are registered for the draft, ready to answer the army’s call as their ancestors have done since days of yore.

Despite their advanced communications technology, such as the $4.3 billion computerized RITA system just sold to the United States, French forces include 100 carrier pigeons.

The military’s pigeons, part of the 8th Communication Regiment atop Mont Valerien, the highest ground in the Paris region, are mostly for show. However, they form the nucleus of a last-ditch contingency plan that eventually would involve a mass drafting of civilian birds.

There are more than 35,000 pigeon keepers in France who, in time of war, can be called upon to provide their pigeons to the army. All are registered with the local military region.

The man the army would turn to is Chief Warrant Officer Jean-Pierre Fauvez, a 22-year veteran who is in charge of the pigeon house and adjoining museum at Fort Mont Valerien.

Fauvez, 42, not only loves his work, but is something of a carrier pigeon historian.

″Man has used pigeons to send messages for more than 5,000 years,″ he said. The Pharaohs of Egypt used carrier pigeons. So did the Greeks, but the Roman Empire first recognized the military possibilities of carrier pigeons.

The Frankish king Charles Martel, grandfather of Charlemagne, used a pigeon to announce his victory over the Arabs at Poitiers in 732, halting the advance of Islam into Christian Europe. ″Sarracenti obtriti,″ he messaged; Saracens defeated.

During the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71, the besieged French forces in Paris communicated with the government in the provinces via carrier pigeon.

After that war, the army was convinced of the value of a permanent pigeon service. It originally was attached to the engineers, then later to signals.

The birds performed admirably in World War I. On the wall of the museum is a citation to Pigeon 787 which ″in spite of the enormous difficulties resulting from an intense smoke and abundant emission of gas, accomplished the mission given to it by Maj. Raynal. The only means of communication of the heroic defender of Fort Vaux, it transmitted the last information received from this officer. Heavily poisoned, it arrived, dying in the pigeon house.″

The Germans rolled over France much too quickly in 1940 for carrier pigeons to play a role for the army in World War II, but they were called to service by the Resistance forces in the countryside. They were used again during the war in Indochina.

The last combat use of French army pigeons was during the Algerian War, linking isolated outposts with headquarters. The main pigeon house was located in the suburbs of Algiers.

Why the lingering interest, particularly in the age of highly sophisticated military communication?

According to Fauvez, the massive means of destruction available to modern armies could knock out all communication. Atomic explosion could seriously affect radio transmissions. In such a situation, the hardy carrier pigeon could assume a vast importance.

Carrier pigeons fly at an altitude up to 1,000 feet and at speeds averaging between 35 mph and 60 mph. According to Fauvez, they are best used in short relays.

Unlike sick, parasite-ridden city pigeons that live only four years or so, carrier pigeons live an average of 18 years thanks to excellent care.

Last July, the army carried out pigeon maneuvers in several areas of central France, using civilian pigeons and pigeon keepers. The civilian birds were ″excellent,″ Fauvez said, and more maneuvers are planned.

Training, diet and care are the keys to the successful army pigeon, Fauvez said, caressing one of his charges. They fly for an hour each day. Special food mixtures are prepared depending on the season and the assignments of the birds.

The army pigeon house even has its own infirmary for ailing birds - who have to get well quickly or die.

″It’s the same as with race horses - a bad fracture and you have to destroy them,″ said Fauvez.

Ah, well, pigeon life is cheap.

″You can take care of 80 pigeons a day for the price of a package of cigarettes,″ said the warrant officer. The entire pigeon house and museum is operated on a budget of $3,300 dollars a year, excluding the military pay of Fauvez and his two assistants.

The Pentagon spends even less on its pigeon program.

″We do not have any trained pigeons in the U.S. Army,″ said Maj. Phil Soucy, an Army spokesman at the Pentagon.

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