Picture of a pigeon

Kamikaze Pigeons

There I am, my little claws digging into the side of the building, eyeing the beetle crawling up the side of the wall and wondering how tasty he’s going to be when WHAM. It’s night. I flap my wings and let out squawking grunts to let the world know I am not pleased. My wings hit something that feels like canvas all around me.

“Got one, Mr. Skinner.” A male human voice drifts through the bag. “Are you sure pigeons are the best solution for countering Germany’s V2 guided missiles?”

The way he says “pigeons” makes me feel like a worm on the sidewalk. Mmm, I could go for a nice juicy worm right now.

“Of course,” a second voice says. Probably this Skinner fellow. “They have excellent vision and an unflappable nature.”

Unflappable? Is that a compliment or a joke? Before I can think about it more, the bag lifts off the ground and I’m sure I’m going to die. Someone’s having roast pigeon for dinner. Pigeon pie with pigeon gravy. I let out another cry.

But my fear of dying is quickly put to rest. The first guy dumps me into a large cage. I almost protest, but the straw is nice and soft, so I dig myself a little nest instead. I’m given water and plenty of food and now I wonder if I’ve already died and gone to bird heaven.

More pigeons are dumped into the cage with me. Several try to break through the wired walls, but the comfortable surroundings soon change their minds. Days pass, and Skinner starts taking us out for his experiments. He puts a little round screen in front of us, and it’s easy to figure out he wants us to peck it because, when we do, he gives us more food.

I’m definitely in bird heaven, and getting fat to boot.

Then his tests get a little harder. Pictures show up on the screen and he wants us to peck the pictures, but not all pictures, only certain ones.

I’m the first to catch on. Skinner is pleased, and I spend the rest of the day with my feathers fluffed so everyone can see how important I am.

Milos Stevanovic~srwiki, CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons

One day he takes us across some grass to a long metal thing propped on a stand. Inside are three little compartments just the right size for a pigeon. Each compartment has one of the hard screens. My friends and I quiver with excitement, eager for seeds.

I’m put into the left compartment and a little harness with a cable attached is placed on my head.

“When they peck,” Skinner says. “They pull the cable, which guides the missile to the target.”

“Only if all three peck at the right time.” His assistant sounds skeptical.

“They will,” Skinner says. “They’re clever things. In fact, I may never work with rats again.”

Ha! Take that, rats. I coo contentedly.

Skinner closes us in. I’m a little panicked I can’t find a way out, but the lighted screen distracts me. The harness feels funny, but when the right picture shows up, I peck like mad. He takes us out. Grinning. I give a happy little flap. Grinning means lots of food.

“We’ll be ready for the demonstration soon,” he says. “I can’t wait to see the committees’ faces when these pigeons guide the missile straight to the target.”

The assistant dumps a pile of seeds in front of me and runs a finger down my neck.”Well, little guy. At least your last days got to be good ones.”

I gobble down the seeds, not sure what he means.

Burrhus Frederic Skinner’s demonstration in 1943 was a success, but the military never really took his pigeon guided missiles seriously. Shocker, right? They decided supporting Skinner would take valuable resources away from more promising technology, and Project Pigeon was scrapped, much to the delight of pigeons everywhere.

Incidentally, Skinner kept some of the pigeons from his invention. Years later, they still remembered their training.

So, what’s the weirdest invention you’ve ever heard of?

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