Warning: This post contains spoilers for season seven of Game of Thrones.
“Ravens. We need to send ravens,” Bran Stark said at the beginning of “Eastwatch,” the action-packed fifth episode of this season’s Game of Thrones.
Bran had just warged and seen a flock of ravens flying north of the Wall — and when he opened his eyes back in Winterfell, he told Maester Wolkan they needed to dispatch ravens. The birds were then used to set up a series of big moments in Sunday’s episode, including Samwell Tarly’s hasty decision to leave the Citadel and a tricky maneuver by Littlefinger that could pit Arya and Sansa against each other.
And these ravens were just some of the many used to advance the plot in HBO’s hit fantasy show — a raven carried a message from Tyrion Lannister that invited Jon Snow to meet Daenerys Targaryen, and a rare white raven let Sansa Stark and Jon Snow know that winter had finally arrived. And that’s not even getting into the matter of the Three-Eyed Raven.
But, though the land over which those ravens have flown is one of fantasy, there’s a real historical basis to the idea of message-carrying birds. Homing pigeons have a storied history dating back far beyond the Middle Ages, the period from which Thrones author George R.R. Martin frequently draws inspiration. (Pigeons aren’t the only birds with special abilities — corvids like ravens are thought to be particularly smart — but they are the most famous for this particular purpose.) And many of history’s most famous homing pigeons — including one that saved nearly 200 soldiers in World War I — have earned their celebrity through their involvement in war.
Also referred to as messenger or carrier pigeons, the birds are capable of traveling as fast as some cars — about a mile a minute — and traveling at least 500 miles a day while carrying letters attached to their legs. As a point of comparison, a regular pigeon might go a mile or two a day. Once the message is received, the pigeons will return back to its “home” — though experts disagree exactly how pigeons carry out the feat.
“If you believe the Italians, it’s all due to smells,” Charlie Walcott, a professor emeritus of neurobiology and behavior at Cornell University, told TIME. “And if you believe some of the Germans, it has to do with the earth’s magnetic field. And my personal view is it’s a combination of the two. If I were to blindfold you, I bet you could find your way home by hailing a cab or talking to someone. And I think that’s what’s happening with pigeons, is that they have these alternative strategies.”
The first known homing pigeons were used in ancient civilizations in Egypt, Greek and Rome, according to Hugh Gladstone’s 1919 treatise Birds and the War. For example, in 44 B.C., Marcus Junius Brutus used these pigeons to protect his city during the siege of Modena by sending messages to his allies. “Gradually, it was recognized that pigeons would prove of great military importance,” Gladstone wrote.
Carrier pigeons continued to be used in the centuries that followed — and one tale claims that a fruit-loving Arab ruler during the Middle Ages used the birds for more than just delivering his correspondences. He also used them to bring him his fix of Lebanese cherries, receiving a single cherry inside a silk bag in each delivery, according to the The Pigeon Wars of Damascus.
In fact, homing pigeons remained a prevalent form of communicating, especially over long distances, until 1844, when Samuel Morse invented the telegraph.
But the winged messengers weren’t completely phased out after that, despite newer technology. An estimated 200,000 homing pigeons were used throughout World War I and World War II, and were essential to the strategies of various armies for their work disseminating important messages from the front lines of the battlefield.
Perhaps the most famous such messenger was Cher Ami, a name that means “Dear Friend” in French. The purple- and blue-speckled bird transported a dozen messages for the U.S. Army Signal Corps in France, and is credited with saving nearly 200 American soldiers in World War I. Cher Ami’s swan song came during one of his missions in September of 1918. At the time, nearly 500 American troops, led by Major Charles Whittlesey, were trapped, surrounded by German forces on a battlefield in northern France. What was worse, they were also coming under friendly fire. Whittlesey needed more troops — at that point, there were only 200 survivors of his so-called “Lost Battalion” left — and he had already tried using two different pigeons to deliver that message. Both were shot down by the Germans.
He tried once more, this time deploying Cher Ami with a note that read, “We are along the road parallel to 276.4. Our own artillery is dropping a barrage directly on us. For heaven’s sake, stop it.”
Cher Ami was also struck by enemy fire, taking a bullet to his breast and leg. But that didn’t stop him from delivering the message, and his heroic commitment eventually led to the remaining 197 trapped soldiers getting saved. While Cher Ami died a year later, likely due to complications from his battle injuries, he received a medal of honor from the French army. And his legacy lives on at the Smithsonian Museum in Washington, D.C., where his stuffed body is part of the “Price of Freedom: Americans at War” exhibit.
And even today, while there are literally hundreds of apps people can choose from to share messages, some still rely on homing pigeons.
One of the most popular uses for the birds is pigeon racing, and Orlando Martinez is one of the most renowned names in the game. The New York-based pigeon racer has a flock of feathered friends that he uses to enter races that earn him upwards of $15,000, according to Smithsonian magazine. The birds are brought to a location hundreds of miles away from their homes, and then race to fly back. The pigeons are so goal-oriented that they rarely stop for food or to recharge — and Martinez learned that even a broken wing didn’t stop one of his birds from trekking back to his Brooklyn home after a 300-mile race.
It’s that level of dedication that makes these birds the favored form of communication throughout the Seven Kingdoms — and perhaps the most trusted beings in the realm.