Bird Bombs
It's a bird! It's a plane!
No, it's a bird flying a plane, and there's a bomb in it.
This is the history of a crackpot idea...eventually vindicated. -- B.F. Skinner, "Pigeons in a Pelican"

It doesn't sound practical or particularly safe, but it was a real program during the Second World War designed to keep pilots out of harms' way yet still deliver a lethal payload. The United States military and world-renowned behaviorist Dr. Burrhus Frederic Skinner collaborated on Project Pelican during WWII and after.

The US Army mainly used homing pigeons to relay messages during WWI, WWII, and the Korean War. However, the use of pigeons for military purposes was not limited to messenger work, as this project illustrates.

Homing pigeons were so popular as Army messengers during the first half of the 20th century because they were reliable, intelligent, steadfast, and could not be jammed by technological intervention by the enemy. B.F. Skinner argued these attributes would make them excellent missile guides. He developed this idea before the onset of WWII, and worked to develop it
B.F. Skinner was a professor at the University of Minnesota at the time of the Pelican Project, and held esteemed fellowships and professorship positions at universities and research centers. Skinner published dozens of works about behaviorism, operant conditioning, and the psychology of reinforcement and human behavior.

Skinner's theories framed behavior as a function of an organism responding to, or operating on, its environment. This was true for humans as well as animals. Just as Pavlov was able to show that dogs could be trained to respond to a stimulus, Skinner expounded on this research and applied concepts of learned behavior to training pigeons.

Skinner's work with pigeons was extensive and well established by the time of Project Pelican with the military. Pigeons were one of his favorite animals to research, and he worked with them on many projects. In an article in Time magazine in 1950, Skinner explained that pigeons' long lives, their color vision, and intelligence made them excellent subjects.

Getting a pigeon to fly on its own is one thing, but getting that same bird to fly a missile is another. Skinner first thought of the idea of using pigeons to pilot missiles, kamikaze style, and then set to work developing a program that could be taken over by the military. But he had to train the pigeons first.

Skinner bought some pigeons at a poultry store: 40 homers and 24 ordinary pigeons, and started teaching the birds to earn kernels of grain by pecking at a specific target image. They were taught to peck for food and Skinner's research determined they performed best when feeding on hemp seed. Pigeons could be trained to cooperate with each other as well.
The project eventually involved the nose cone of a missile -- the "Pelican" -- that would hold three pigeons in separate compartments. Each section had a lens towards the front of the missile, and using operant conditioning, the pigeons were trained to peck at the target projected on it. This would keep the missiles on target.

In what may be an odd partnership, the head of the mechanical division of General Mills Inc. (yes, that General Mills) heard about Skinner's work training pigeons to fly suicide bombs. However, he liked the research and persuaded the company to provide technical assistance to the project. Support helped the project get to a point where it was awarded a contract in June 1943 by the Office of Scientific Research and Development (OSRD).

While Skinner was heading the project, many aspects of the Pelican equipment were classified and some of his work was based on educated projection about what exactly was needed to control the missiles. This challenge didn't hinder Skinner or the pigeons. Noises, bright lights, temperature swings, altitude changes, and G Forces did not even cause the birds to miss a peck! In reports on the experiments, "'There wasn't a single washout in the entire class of 64. Every bird earned his wings with an A grade."

Even the perfect demonstration didn't get this unmanned missile system off the ground. Skinner lamented that "no one would take us seriously" and was concerned about how far ahead Germany was with their own missile technology. He believed in the potential of Project Pelican, and continued to test his pigeons at regular intervals. In C. V. Cline's 2005 article in Aviation History, Skinner "tested them at six months, a year, two, four and six years later. All of them accurately struck the target... While his pigeons were never tested in combat, he was confident they could have carried out their missions."

After World War II, the project resumed and was renamed Project Orcon, for "organic control" at the behest of the U.S. Navy to use missiles against ships. Their interest in Project Pelican in 1948 reinvigorated the project. The original reports were still classified at the time, but Skinner was once again called upon to help train pigeons to control missiles. Training and tests over the next five years showed that the pigeons could still guide missiles!

However, Project Orcon, much like Project Pelican before it, was terminated despite its success. Though the revival was successful technically, it was canceled in 1953 when electronic guidance systems' reliability was proven. The US Army's own Pigeon Breeding and Training Program was discontinued in 1957 when radar and electronic forms of communications became reliable enough.

The idea of a trio of tiny birds flying a vessel carrying an explosive payload might sound fanciful, even ridiculous, to our current notions of technology and advancements. It is the spirit of innovation and creativity however that is to be celebrated. Indeed, had CECOM's predecessor organizations not mastered radar and remote controlled sensing, these bird bombs might have been the weapons of the century.

Page last updated Tue September 17th, 2013 at 00:00