Their exploits, though, have tended to go underappreciated here in London, where Mayor Ken Livingstone's long-running war with the lowly pigeon over who controls the territory of Trafalgar Square has tended to obscure the otherwise heroic stature of the ubiquitous waddlers.
No more. Images of the long-distance homing birds that served Britain through two world wars went on auction Tuesday, fetching an unexpected $20,789 and a lot of surprised clucking.
The sale of the eight oil paintings depicting the birds in calm and curious profile against pastoral European landscapes -- meadows that later would become killing fields for the birds and their masters -- has revived interest in the exploits of the quarter of a million pigeons drafted to serve as messengers and spies during World War II.
The owner of the paintings, Jack Lovell, established secret pigeon lofts near the Dover coast in 1939 that provided 200 specially bred Belgian pigeons, of the kind depicted in the images, to the Royal Navy for deployment behind enemy lines with the French Resistance.
"I think people sort of tend to think of pigeons being vermin, but in fact they played this extraordinary role in the Second World War," said Charlotte Wood, a spokeswoman for Bonhams, where the paintings went on sale.
"They were the finest strain of long-distance pigeons in the world at the time," said Lovell, 92, who was unable to attend the auction.
Pigeons through the millenniums have acted as messengers of war. Genghis Khan deployed them in Europe in the 13th century. The first news of Wellington's victory at Waterloo came by pigeon post. And an estimated 20,000 military pigeons were killed during World War I.
One of them, Cher Ami, is credited by the Smithsonian Institution with having saved the lives of 194 American soldiers of the "Lost Battalion," which had become isolated from other American forces at Verdun, France. The male black check pigeon was shot as it made its way from the stranded battalion, arriving back behind American lines bloodied with its last message capsule dangling from a shattered leg. The bird died of its wounds in 1919, and was awarded the French Croix de Guerre.
By World War II, British military commanders were ready to give up winged communications in favor of radios -- until they remembered that radios were subject to interception.
Lovell had acquired six pairs of birds from Belgian breeder Jules Janssen, whose fowl were known for their hardiness and endurance. They could fly 900 miles if called upon, Lovell said.
A senior military officer approached him in 1939, Lovell recalled in a telephone interview. "He said, 'Lovely lot of birds you've got here. They're good enough for me.' "
Lovell's birds initially were deployed along the British coast as an early-warning system in the event of an invasion. Later, a loft was established at Bletchley Park, the Allies' center where codes and messages from several Axis countries, including those generated by the German Enigma machine, were deciphered.
The army, meanwhile, was experimenting with pigeon drops -- flying birds over occupied Europe and dropping them from planes, sometimes equipped with tiny parachutes. The practice had a disturbing casualty rate among the avian paratroopers, Lovell said.
He worked only with the Navy to smuggle birds by boat to the French underground.
Each capsule attached to a bird's leg could carry a sheet of paper 36 inches long. Some birds carried film shot inside German weapons and rocket factories, Lovell said.
"The problem was, what do you do when you want to liberate the pigeon, without it being conspicuous?" he said. "The simplest way was to take it out in a newspaper. You find some pigeons out in the street, you put some food out, you let the newspaper down, and all of them fly away together. Who could pick out the pigeon coming back with a message on him?"
Lovell isn't sure how many of his birds perished -- by then, the military was in control, he said. But most of them were making journeys of 250 miles back to their lofts in Britain.
"A pigeon, when it flies up high on a clear day, it can see 70 miles," he said. "They've got wonderful eyesight."
The auctioned paintings, attributed to J Baldaus of France and British artist Edward Henry Windred, depict champion birds, presumably direct antecedents of Lovell's pigeons. Most were sold to an anonymous buyer who bid by telephone, going for five times what Bonhams had expected.