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Heroic WWI Homing Pigeon Cher Ami Marks Smithsonian Centennial

Smithsonian Scientists and Historians Decode 100-Year-Old DNA To Discover Sex of Historic Bird
July 13, 2021

For just over a century, the sex of the avian World War I hero (or heroine) Cher Ami has been a subject of speculation, with the U.S. Army, Smithsonian historians and visitors—and even films and children’s books—weighing in. Cher Ami, a Columba livia domestica, is perhaps the most famous pigeon in the world following its service during WWI in France with the U.S. Army’s Signal Corps. Military records in 1919 describe pigeon band number NURP 18 EAD 615 as a “hen,” but when placed on exhibition for the first time in June 1921, the Smithsonian described Cher Ami as a cock bird, or male, based on information proved by the Signal Corps in 1920. 

During WWI, pigeons worked as reliable messengers on the battlefield. The British Home Forces Pigeon Service donated 600 such birds, including Cher Ami, to the U.S. armed forces in May 1918. While Cher Ami is credited with helping save the famed Lost Battalion by carrying a critical message Oct. 4, 1918, there are many inconsistent narratives. It is recorded that the carrier pigeon delivered the message despite losing a leg to a bullet or shrapnel and sustaining a wound to the breast. Cher Ami survived the war and was brought to the U.S. as a hero. 

“The wartime myth of Cher Ami cannot be proven by existing records,” said Frank A. Blazich Jr., curator of military history at the National Museum of American. “But through DNA research, the Smithsonian can now definitively state that Cher Ami is a male pigeon.” 

To solve the mystery, the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History partnered with the Smithsonian’s National Zoo and Conservation Biology Institute and the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History on the DNA research. Carla Dove, program manager of the Feather Identification Lab of the National Museum of Natural History, and Robert Fleischer, senior scientist and head of the Zoo’s Center for Conservation Genomics (CCG), led the effort to determine the sex of the pigeon. 

On May 10, Dove and Fleisher took tissue samples for DNA analysis from the stump of Cher Ami’s right leg (part of which was lost in the battle) and from the underside of the bird’s left rear toepad. 

In the CCG ancient DNA lab, Laboratory Manager Nancy Rotzel McInerney extracted DNA from the samples and used polymerase chain reaction (PCR) to make millions of copies for use in gel electrophoresis to determine the sex-specific DNA sequences. The lab results reveal that the bird is male—Cher Ami had “Z-specific” DNA sequences, but no “W-specific” sequences. In birds (different from humans and other mammals), females have two types of sex chromosomes (Z and W) while males only have Z chromosomes. The results corroborated the Smithsonian’s original description of the pigeon.  

After Cher Ami died June 13, 1919, his body was turned over to a taxidermist at the Natural History Museum, and the WWI hero first went on display in the Smithsonian’s Arts and Industries Building in June 1921. For more than 100 years, Cher Ami has represented a story of survival, hope and perseverance against a backdrop of the horrors of war. Cher Ami is currently on view in the WWI section of the “Price of Freedom: Americans at War” exhibition in the National Museum of American History. 

Through incomparable collections, rigorous research and dynamic public outreach, the National Museum of American History seeks to empower people to create a more just and compassionate future by examining, preserving and sharing the complexity of our past. The museum, located on Constitution Avenue N.W., between 12th and 14th streets, is open Friday through Tuesday between 11 a.m. and 4 p.m. Admission is free, but reserved timed-entry passes are required. To make reservations, visit si.edu/visit. Follow the museum on social media on Twitter and Instagram @amhistorymuseum and on Facebook at @americanhistory. For Smithsonian information, the public may call (202) 633-1000. 

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