In World War II, mass hysteria took hold, and citizens believed that spies riddled their country.
Fingers were pointing at every direction–even the sky, where the pigeons took flight. But this paranoia wasn’t misplaced.
The CIA’s recently declassified files show agents trained spy-pigeons for stealth missions during the Cold War - a period of time after World War II when there was intense mistrust between the U.S and Russia.
The 1970s operation “Tacana” displays how pigeons were equipped with tiny cameras that took automatic photos. The plan was to film sites in the Soviet Union.
Not Just Nuisances
Pigeon communication dates back to thousands of years. Pigeons were used as messengers in ancient Persia and Rome. Before the telegraph, pigeon post was the most efficient way to communicate. They even carried stock prices between two European cities that were not connected in the mid-19th century!
But it was in World War I that they were deployed for missions. The US Army Signal Corps used over 600 pigeons in France alone. The UK used another 250,000 in World War II, contributing to the growing spy paranoia.
But why are pigeons such a popular wartime spy? Why not falcons, or other, more majestic birds? This is because while pigeons aren’t the smartest or the fastest, they have a valuable sixth sense: navigation! While this skill isn't anything like homing missiles, when pigeons are dropped into unfamiliar surroundings, hundreds of miles away from their home, they still find their way back. This is because they can detect Earth’s magnetic fields, using the signals like a GPS. They’re also a lot more unsuspicious than any bald eagle would be.
Pigeons weren’t the only ones experimented on within the CIA’s operation. The released files also describe how CIA agents trained ravens to retrieve objects–up to 40 g–from windowsills, as well as trials for remote-controlled dogs and cats with listening devices in them. They even worked with dolphins!
However, out of all of them, pigeons still proved to be the most efficient. Tests using the tiny cameras displayed clear details and quality photos–higher than spy satellites at that time. Of course, if US citizens came across these pigeons with cameras, they would fear that this method would be used against them. To prevent this, the CIA agents came up with an elaborate backstory that could be used.
The intended mission was to use pigeons to target intelligence within the Soviet Union. The CIA began a trial mission in September of the 1970s; pigeons would be deployed at Leningrad, shipyards responsible for the advanced Soviet Union submarines. Although the mission seemed possible, the files do not give confirmation whether the pigeons succeeded or not.
Either way, Tacana gives an interesting look into the CIA’s methods of gaining information. Check out this fascinating video about the use of pigeons in World War 1!