The Great Pigeon Project

With the outbreak of World War II, the prospect of overcoming the combined forces of Germany and Japan seemed overwhelming.  For that reason, military leaders in the various Allied countries began exploring every possible option to give their troops an advantage.   If some of those military research projects seemed, well, bizarre (whether it involved warships made of ice or incendiary bats),  the expense was often justified on the grounds that unconventional thinking could win the war for them. 

As to how eminent experimental psychologist, B.F. Skinner first became involved in military research, that is a story in itself.  Already famous for his theories on operant conditioning in rats, using reinforcement schedules to control human and animal behaviour made possible military applications all the more intriguing.  According to one account,  Skinner came up with the idea of training pigeons to guide missiles to their targets while on a train trip and seeing a flock of birds flying along the tracks. 

Using pigeons as weapons of war was not an original idea, actually.  British forces had been training homing pigeons successfully since World War I and an estimated 250,000 pigeons were deployed during the Second World War.  Their performance was valued enough to earn thirty-two pigeons the Dickin medal (the animal equivalent of the Victoria Cross).   Even the U.S. military had a Pigeon Service with one particular flying hero, G.I. Joe, being credited with saving more than 1,000 lives.   

While training pigeons to deliver chemical and bacteriological weapons directly to selected military targets had been discussed on different levels, nothing was really done with the idea.  At least, not until Skinner came forward with his own unique proposal.   His impressive academic credentials were enough to grant the idea of pigeon-guided missiles a hearing in the quest to develop a new form of guided missile.   Eager to help psychology shed its reputation as an experimental discipline with few real-world applications, Skinner's early research showed that pigeons could be conditioned to keep pecking at a given target and even react to feedback in a way that made pigeon-operated guided missiles seem feasible.  As part of his military proposal, he showed that one of his pigeons was able to peck at an image more than 100,000 times in forty-five minutes.  Having pigeons  guide missiles towards model ships or any other military targets  seemed a natural extension of that research.  Although the U.S. military wasn't interested when the eminent psychologist first approached them in 1940, everything changed with the Japanese invasion of Pearl Harbor and the United States entering World War II.   Considering that the Nazis were already experimenting with guided missiles, the U.S. government decided to give the Skinner proposal another look.   

Despite being initially interested in a program to train dogs to guide missiles to steer torpedoes, the U.S. military and the General Mills company (which provided a $25,000 grant) recruited Skinner to develop his project.  And it was quite a project.   Since pigeons could reliably peck at screens under a whole range of conditions (including rapid descent and background explosions), the military drew up plans for a new class of Pelican missiles containing three pigeons loaded into a pressurized capsule.  Presented with a picture of the target on a screen in the capsule, the pigeons pecking at the screen would be linked to the guidance rudders of the missile to steer it towards the target.    Early testing showed that the pigeons were at least as accurate as radar and  immune to the standard anti-missile jamming available at the time.   Skinner himself justified the need for three birds in each missile as an error-control mechanism to ensure that the missile would be directed against the correct target.   With the mechanism that he proposed, at least two pigeons would need to agree on a given target and would "punish" the dissenting pigeon for an incorrect response thus shifting the dissenter to the majority opinion. 

With prototype missiles being built and plans made to train hundreds of pigeons for the project, all that remained was to convince government officials at a high-level demonstration in 1944.  By then, Nazi V2 missiles were already being used against Great Britain and the pressure was on to produce something to counter the new threat.   For all Skinner's enthusiasm, the military simply had trouble accepting the idea of kamikaze pigeons functioning  under combat conditions.  As B.F. Skinner would ruefully admit later, "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".  

The project was formally cancelled on October 8, 1944 with the  military  arguing that "further prosecution of this project would seriously delay others which in the minds of the Division have more immediate promise of combat application."  It likely didn't help that a similar project for making bat bombs was scrapped due to critical delays despite more than two million dollars being spent.  Ironically, a far better proposal by glamorous actress Hedy Lamarr and composer George Antheil for an improved missile guidance system had been completely ignored when first devised.  Presumably, bat bombs and kamikaze pigeons were considered to be more feasible than anything coming out of Hollywood (the Lamarr-Antheil spread-spectrum frequency-hopping invention would eventually revolutionize communication technology). 

The pigeons used in the project were quietly returned to Skinner's laboratory although later testing showed that they recalled their training even after six years.  B.F. Skinner was impressed enough by the pigeons' performance to continue using them for his operant conditioning research.  Since pigeons behaved more rapidly than rats, he regarded them as ideal research subjects in exploring new reinforcement principles.  As he would later write, "the research that I described in The Behavior of Organisms appeared in a new light. It was no longer merely an experimental analysis. It had given rise to a technology."  Although his later attempts at commercializing operant conditioning technology (including a baby tender that he had developed for his infant daughter, Deborah) had mixed success,  his contributions to psychology are legendary.

Although World War 2 ended without help from Skinner's pigeons, military interest was briefly revived in 1948 under the name Project Orcon (for "organic control").  The new proposal involved attaching gold electrodes to the beaks of trained pigeons which would then strike a semi-conducting plate to guide missiles to their targets.  Once again, this project was scrapped in 1953 since advances in electronic guidance systems made pigeon-based systems obsolete.  

Military projects involving trained animals still attract some interest although their track record seems spotty at best.  Use of trained dolphins to carry mines to attack enemy warships appear to have been quietly abandoned following the breakup of the Soviet Union (and the trained dolphins were later sold to Iran).  Training seals and sea lions to locate mines appears to be more successful and trained bomb-sniffing dogs are regularly used in Iraq and Afghanistan.  The Dickin Medal is still awarded to animals whose military service helps save lives.   While Project Pigeon never actually got off the ground (sorry), the use of animals in warfare will likely continue so long as the need remains.


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