Swiss history: How the Swiss army refused to decommission its pigeons

For half a century after WWII ended, the Swiss army refused to decommission its carrier pigeons, even though they had long outlived their usefulness.

Swiss history: How the Swiss army refused to decommission its pigeons
Pigeons flew military missions in Switzerland for over 70 years. Photo by KENZO TRIBOUILLARD / AFP

Certain species of pigeons have an uncanny ability to find their way home to their coops from any distance. That is why pigeons were widely used to carry messages from one military unit to another in World War I and II.

But only the Swiss army had kept its pigeons long after the war ended — until 1996. They have been on standby for decades in case of invasion— this time from the Soviet Union.

The birds “have been specially trained for homing and are used to flying long distances over all kinds of terrain,” Samuel Iselin, a spokesman for the Federal Office of Signal Troops in Bern, said just before the pigeon troops were disbanded.

But since the country had not been involved in either of the world wars, it is safe to assume that Swiss pigeons had never seen active combat duty or witnessed any frontline action.

There is also no record of any of them falling victim to enemy fire, unlike their French counterpart, Cher Ami, which was hit while delivering messages during the Battle of Verdun in 1916. She was awarded the posthumous Croix de Guerre medal for her bravery.

It is perhaps natural to think that pigeons carried messages in their beaks, like the olive branches. But in fact, messages were written on light paper, rolled into a small tube, and attached to the bird’s leg.

From 1919 until 1996, Switzerland owned 7,000 pigeons; another 23,000 were on standby to use in case of national emergency.

In the early 1990s, the Defense Ministry decided to save $476,000 a year by finally retiring the flock and focusing on more modern communication methods.

But in a truly Swiss fashion, a pro-pigeon group had collected 100,000 signatures for a referendum to enshrine the carrier pigeon service in the Swiss constitution.

 In the end, however, bird enthusiasts and the army reached a compromise: a new foundation was established especially to care for the retired military pigeons in their new civilian life.

Thirty elite birds were pigeonholed, as it were, to live out their retirement in warmer climes.

They were sold to a private South African buyer, and they didn’t even have to fly to their new home themselves. “The pigeons were handed over in Zurich and put aboard a South African Airways flight,” Iselin explained.

Member comments

Log in here to leave a comment.
Become a Member to leave a comment.
For members


Is Switzerland’s male-only mandatory military service ‘discriminatory’?

Under Swiss law, all men must serve at least one year in compulsory national service. But is this discriminatory?

Swiss military members walk across a road carrying guns
A new lawsuit seeks to challenge Switzerland's male-only military service requirement. Is this discriminatory? FABRICE COFFRINI / AFP

All men aged between the ages of 18 and 30 are required to complete compulsory military service in Switzerland. 

A lawsuit which worked its way through the Swiss courts has now ended up in the European Court of Human Rights, where the judges will decide if Switzerland’s male-only conscription requirement violates anti-discrimination rules. 

Switzerland’s NZZ newspaper wrote on Monday the case has “explosive potential” and has “what it takes to cause a tremor” to a policy which was first laid out in Switzerland’s 1848 and 1874 Federal Constitutions. 

What is Switzerland’s compulsory military service? 

Article 59 of the Federal Constitution of Switzerland says “Every man with Swiss citizenship is liable for military service. Alternative civilian service shall be provided for by law.”

Recruits must generally do 18 weeks of boot camp (longer in some cases). 

They are then required to spend several weeks in the army every year until they have completed a minimum 245 days of service.

Military service is compulsory for Swiss men aged 18 and over. Women can chose to do military service but this is rare.

What about national rather than military service? 

Introduced in 1996, this is an alternative to the army, originally intended for those who objected to military service on moral grounds. 

READ MORE: The Swiss army’s growing problem with civilian service

Service is longer there than in the army, from the age of 20 to 40. 

This must be for 340 days in total, longer than the military service requirement. 

What about foreigners and dual nationals? 

Once you become a Swiss citizen and are between the ages of 18 and 30, you can expect to be conscripted. 

READ MORE: Do naturalised Swiss citizens have to do military service?

In general, having another citizenship in addition to the Swiss one is not going to exempt you from military service in Switzerland.

However, there is one exception: the obligation to serve will be waved, provided you can show that you have fulfilled your military duties in your other home country.

If you are a Swiss (naturalised or not) who lives abroad, you are not required to serve in the military in Switzerland, though you can voluntarily enlist. 

How do Swiss people feel about military and national service? 

Generally, the obligation is viewed relatively positively, both by the general public and by those who take part in compulsory service. 

While several other European countries have gotten rid of mandatory service, a 2013 referendum which attempted to abolish conscription was rejected by 73 percent of Swiss voters. 

What is the court case and what does it say? 

Martin D. Küng, the lawyer from the Swiss canton of Bern who has driven the case through the courts, has a personal interest in its success. 

He was found unfit for service but is still required to pay an annual bill to the Swiss government, which was 1662CHF for the last year he was required to pay it. 

While the 36-year-old no longer has to pay the amount – the obligation only lasts between the ages of 18 and 30 – Küng is bring the case on principle. 

So far, Küng has had little success in the Swiss courts, with his appeal rejected by the cantonal administrative court and later by the Swiss Federal Supreme Court. 

Previous Supreme Court cases, when hearing objections to men-only military service, said that women are less suitable for conscription due to “physiological and biological differences”.

In Küng’s case, the judges avoided this justification, saying instead that the matter was a constitutional issue. 

‘No objective reason why only men have to do military service’

He has now appealed the decision to the European level. 

While men have previously tried and failed when taking their case to the Supreme Court, no Swiss man has ever brought the matter to the European Court of Human Rights. 

Küng told the NZZ that he considered the rule to be unjust and said the Supreme Court’s decision is based on political considerations. 

“I would have expected the Federal Supreme Court to have the courage to clearly state the obvious in my case and not to decide on political grounds,” Küng said. 

“There is no objective reason why only men have to do military service or pay replacement taxes. On average, women may not be as physically productive as men, but that is not a criterion for excluding them from compulsory military service. 

There are quite a few men who cannot keep up with women in terms of stamina. Gender is simply the wrong demarcation criterion for deciding on compulsory service. If so, then one would have to focus on physical performance.”

Is it likely to pass? 

Küng is optimistic that the Strasbourg court will find in his favour, pointing to a successful appeal by a German man who complained about a fire brigade tax, which was only imposed on men. 

“This question has not yet been conclusively answered by the court” Küng said. 

The impact of a decision in his favour could be considerable, with European law technically taking precedence over Swiss law.

It would set Switzerland on a collision course with the bloc, particularly given the popularity of the conscription provision. 

Küng clarified that political outcomes and repercussions don’t concern him. 

“My only concern is for a court to determine that the current regulation is legally wrong.”