Watch a pigeon dodge traffic, both vehicular and pedestrian. The bird seems to be the very embodiment of unfulfilled potential—it can fly, and yet it walks. Of course, during World War II, pigeons did a fair amount of flying, carrying messages between the front and command posts. But full pigeon promise was never realized. Because the birds were denied the chance to show what they could do in the air—as pilots.
The story of pigeon pilots, as well as all else pigeon, is told in the new book Superdove: How the Pigeon Took Manhattan...And the World, by Courtney Humphries. She explains that the idea of using pigeons as pilots first occurred to a young B. F. Skinner in 1940, when he watched a flock do some fancy maneuvering. (He presumably did not get the idea from watching the movie Flight Command, which came out the same year and featured a pilot played by Walter Pidgeon.)
Skinner had already shown that a simple reward system—a nibble of kibble—could get rats to engage in increasingly complex behaviors. Because pigeons already had great navigation skills, Skinner really thought outside the box, coming up with the radical notion of actually putting them in the cockpit. Oh, the birds wouldn’t be piloting planes, because who would get on a plane with a pigeon pilot, unless the airlines agreed to drop the baggage fee. No, these pigeons were going to pilot missiles.
Step one, of course, was putting “a toeless sock over the pigeon’s body to restrain the wings and feet,” Humphries explains. The pigeon was thus forced to use its beak to peck at a target—such as a ship, building or specific street corner. Successful pecks were rewarded with pellets of grain. A jerry-built apparatus took the movements of the bird’s head and neck and translated them, using electric motors, into steering moves. Project Pigeon was presented to the National Defense Research Committee for further funding. The committee apparently thought that Skinner should also be restrained and rejected the proposal.
Following Pearl Harbor, however, Skinner resumed his efforts to turn pigeons into WMDs: winged murdering doves. He got a $5,000 check from General Mills—the cereal company, not the unfortunately named army officer of the same period, Major General John S. Mills, who was in fact a pilot and bomb squadron member himself. Ironically, considering the funding source, one key to the enterprise was keeping the birds hungry. “Skinner found that if they were kept just a bit underfed, the birds would work tirelessly for their reward,” Humphries notes. The birds were so good, she says, that Skinner’s team had to work far harder on the mechanical system to translate the avian actions into course corrections than on pilot reliability.
With his pigeon proof-of-concept in place, Skinner was able to get $25,000 from the feds to develop what he called an “organic homing device.” He incorporated redundancy into the design by putting three pigeons into the cockpit, with any birds pecking at the wrong target going hungry until they wised up.
At the same time, the army was trying to perfect a gliding missile called the Pelican, which was being tested in the Garden State. So Skinner’s birds learned to home in on targets in the area where the missile was being developed. That’s right, Skinner was training pigeons to fly a Pelican that would fake-bomb New Jersey.
A final demonstration before the government committee showed that pigeons could indeed be relied on to be ruthless, unrepentant killing machines. But the committee couldn’t get over the fact that they were, ya know, pigeons. Humphries quotes Skinner: “The spectacle of a living pigeon carrying out its assignment, no matter how beautifully, simply reminded the committee of how utterly fantastic our proposal was. I will not say that the meeting was marked by unrestrained merriment, for the merriment was restrained. But it was there.”