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Jean Desbouvrie (c.1840–47 – ?)[1] was a French amateur bird trainer who believed that swallows could be put to use for military communications. During the late 19th century Desbouvrie persuaded the government of France to conduct a study on the feasibility of using swallows as messengers. His early demonstrations showed that swallows could exhibit homing behavior and that when they did so they flew much faster than homing pigeons. Desbouvrie also succeeded in curbing the birds' natural migratory behavior. After obtaining authorization from the government for follow-up testing, Desbouvrie delayed and did not follow through with rigorous experimentation.

Jean-Baptiste Desbouvrie
Bornc. 1840–1847
near Roubaix
Known forResearch in the usage of swallows for military communications
Scientific career
Proposed architectural design for a French military aviary to house swallows as messenger birds, 1889

Desbouvrie received international attention in the press for two unrelated reasons: the bird experiments, and also for a proposal he made to the Paris Academy of Medicine. The Academy published his paper, which declared chronic alcoholism to be a serious public health problem and offered a solution in the form of a claimed cure for hangovers. Desbouvrie hypothesized that the consumption of food which contained an appropriate balance of fat and albumen would prevent hangovers from occurring. He sent the Academy a selection of homemade chocolates along with his manuscript, with assurances that he had tested the concoction extensively upon himself.



Jean Desbouvrie was raised in a village near Roubaix where he worked as a messenger for his father.[2] During his youth he had an avid interest in birds and was determined to disprove general belief that swallows were impossible to tame, so from the age of eleven onward he robbed nests between his work deliveries.[2] Over time he managed to get a dozen swallows to follow him. According to a report published in 1889, "They would fly round his head and perch on his shoulders in the open street."[2]

Swallow trainingEdit

Desbouvrie kept his swallows in a cage and trained them to fly in and out of the cage.[2] Another challenge he overcame was the birds' natural migratory behavior.[2] Desbouvrie believed that swallows migrated southward because the supply of insects for them to feed upon dwindled in winter.[2] Desbouvrie refused to make public disclosure of what he fed the birds in wintertime and regarded that as a trade secret.[2] Later attempts to train homing behavior into migratory birds determined that the birds have no instinctive knowledge of where to fly when the season changes, so if the normal migratory pattern is disrupted during the first year of life the individual does not migrate afterward.[3]

He spent over 30 years keeping birds and devoted two rooms of his house to swallows.[2] One room housed a cage for the swallows.[2] The other room was a training space with a balcony used for practice releases.[2] He documented the age and health of each bird in a register, and marked each one by tying a colored silk to its leg.[2] Red silk indicated a trained bird and blue silk indicated a partially trained bird.[2] Trained swallows were allowed to roam outside their cages, while the others remained caged at all times.[2] Untrained birds were sold as pets.[2]

An 1889 report described a demonstration of Desbouvrie's swallows:

Four of the little prisoners, the oldest not more than twenty days, were let loose. It was raining in torrents at the moment, a circumstance by no means favorable to the trial. The birds rose in the air, flew round the house several times, and then darted off into the country, disappearing into the country. Twenty-five minutes after the youngest returned and perched on the balcony; the other three did not come back before an hour. They all then entered the cage-room, when Desbouvrie gave them some food, which they ate out of his hand.[2]

Potential applications of swallow trainingEdit

The 1955 book Bird Navigation describes efforts at training homing behavior in species other than pigeons.[3] Bird Navigation mentions Desbouvrie as an early experimenter, and also a passage from Pliny the Elder in which "Caecina of Volterra" (possibly Caecina Paetus) used painted swallows to report the colors of winning horses in a race.[3] It is uncertain whether Desbouvrie was aware of the Pliny's report.

Carrier pigeons had been a significant factor in communications during the Franco-Prussian War of 1870.[4] An 1892 report in The American Magazine that discussed Desbouvrie's efforts noted the importance of pigeons to that war: "Upon several occasions, indeed, the inhabitants of the beleaguered cities looked upon the successful flights of these birds as their only hope betwixt death and starvation."[4]

By the late 19th century Russia was training military falcons, possibly to carry messages or else to hunt the war pigeons.[4] Swallows offered several advantages over pigeons if training could succeed. Swallows fly higher and faster, and are more difficult for marksmen to shoot or for birds of prey to intercept.[2] Swallows are also able to feed during flight.[2]

Government interestEdit

As a demonstration, Desbouvrie brought an untamed swallow from the Roubaix area to Paris and released it.[2] The bird returned to its home 258 kilometers away in 90 minutes.[2] Desbouvrie promised that trained swallows would provide even better speeds.[2] The governor of Lille oversaw testing near Roubaix and a military engineer named Captain Degouy was ordered to oversee a duplication of the Roubaix experiments.[5]

Desbouvrie proposed two swallow aviaries at Montmartre and at Fort Mont-Valérien.[2] The Montmartre cote was scheduled to be constructed first, if Captain Degouy confirmed the results and recommended further training.[5] A report from The Globe stated that Debouvrie believed all his birds were too young for full testing and required additional training. The American Magazine noted that Desbouvrie did not breed his birds and obtained them all as nestlings, although he promised he could breed them easily if he wanted to do so.[4] Over half a century later P.W. Brian stated in Bird Navigation that Desbouvrie "appeared to be unwilling to demonstrate them."[3]

The Globe published a favorable report of Desbouvrie's efforts, although noting that further testing was needed.[2] The Zoologist republished the Globe report with a note that Zoologist editors "have no faith in the idea that the experiment will succeed in his object."[2] The American Magazine dismissed the project with the statement, "The idea of engaging swallows in war is a pretty one, as, in future, all European wars will have to be conducted in 'swallow time'—when the warm winds blow from the sunny south."[4]

Academy of Medicine presentationEdit

Cover page to the medical bulletin that first reported Desbouvrie's claimed discovery of a preventive cure for hangovers

In 1888 the Bulletin de l'academie de medicine (Bulletin of the Academy of Medicine) published a report that Desbouvrie had sent them a manuscript and requested verification of an invention he claimed to have made.[6] He called it was a matter of public health to counter the effects of chronic alcoholism.[6] According to the report, which was republished in English in summary form in the Medical Record and the Cincinnati Lancet-clinic, Desbouvrie had attempted a preventive cure for hangovers.[6][7][8] Desbouvrie asserted that the cure required eating albumen and fat in appropriate proportions one hour before alcohol consumption, and had invented a chocolate which he claimed contained both ingredients in an effective ratio. He provided samples to the Academy and assured its members he had tested the cure upon himself.[6]

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ See The Zoologist below: an 1889 report stated that Desbouvrie began keeping swallows when he was eleven and had raised them for over 30 years. That places his birthdate at or somewhat before 1847.
  2. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r s t u v w author not named (1889). Zoologist: A Monthly Journal of Natural History, ser.3 v.13. J. Van Voorst. pp. 398–399. Retrieved 2009-03-01.
  3. ^ a b c d P.W. Brian (1955). Bird Navigation. Cambridge University Press. pp. 57–58. Retrieved 2009-03-01.
  4. ^ a b c d e author not named (1892). The American Magazine, v.33. Crowell-Collier Pub. co. pp. 230–239. Retrieved 2009-03-01.
  5. ^ a b John Wilson (1891). Poachers and Poaching. Chapman and Hall. p. 60. Retrieved 2009-03-01.
  6. ^ a b c d author not named (1888). Bulletin de l'academie de medicine, v.19–20. W. Wood. pp. 885–888. Retrieved 2009-03-01.
  7. ^ author not named (1888). Medical Record. W. Wood. p. 74. Retrieved 2009-03-01.
  8. ^ J.C. Culbertson, M.D., ed. (1888). The Cincinnati Lancet-clinic, v.60. J.C. Culbertson. p. 80. Retrieved 2009-03-01.CS1 maint: Multiple names: authors list (link) CS1 maint: Extra text: authors list (link)