War is expensive. Battleships cost money. Airplanes cost money, as does jet fuel. Bullets and missiles cost money. Pigeons cost money, too, but they are relatively cheap.
Which is why, in part, when the United States Navy asked famed psychologist and inventor B.F. Skinner for a way to blow up German warships, that’s what he thought of.
Before World War II, Nazi Germany developed the Bismark-class battleship, an enormous hulk of metal armed to the teeth. The Germans ended up building two such ships, the Bismark and the Tirpitz, and Allied forces sank enormous resources defending against and, ultimately, sinking these two ships. But while these targets were enormous, shooting missiles at them was hardly simple — lots of misses made for an expensive endeavor. While targeting technology already existed, it was too large to fit on a missile, so the U.S. Navy searched for targeting solutions.
Skinner’s proposed idea — Project Pigeon — earned him a $25,000 grant from the military. He took a page from his work as a grad student, where he created the “Skinner box,” a device used to condition animals to respond to certain stimuli. Using the device, Skinner was able to get animals such as mice or pigeons to carry out discrete actions such as pressing down levers or pecking at targets. Skinner believed a similar technique could be used to develop a pigeon-enabled targeting system for anti-warship missiles.
The basic idea: cut three chambers out of the nose of the missile, as seen above, and outfit those holes with screens. Train the pigeons to peck at a picture of the battleship, and then put a pigeon into each of the three chambers. While the missile was in flight, its flight controls would respond to the pecks. If the pigeons pecked at the center of the screen, the missile would continue forward on target. But if two or more of the pigeons started pecking off center, the missile would turn in that direction.
And it may have worked — although it never saw battle, having been not fully tested. (A good thing for the pigeons, as by design, it was a one-way trip for them.) In spite of the initial funding, the Navy did not take the project seriously, discontinuing its development in October of 1944. They reconsidered briefly in 1948, but as less creative methods of missile targeting became possible, Project Pigeon was again left unfunded.
Bonus fact: B.F. Skinner shared his interest in pigeons with legendary boxer Mike Tyson. As a child, he owned a number of the birds, and his first real fight was when an older child killed one of his pigeons by pulling off the bird’s head. Tyson beat up the other kid while others watched, cheering him on — a feeling he credits with leading him to boxing. (As he told Details magazine: “It felt good to win, to get more shots in, but it felt really good that everybody was clapping for me.”) Since retiring from boxing, Tyson has returned to the hobby. He raises pigeons in his Phoenix-area home, owning as many as 350 of them and has a TV show on Animal Planet, Taking on Tyson, where he competes in pigeon racing.
From the Archives: The Messenger, Shot: A pigeon who did, indeed, see active duty.
Related: “Pigeons: The Fascinating Saga of the World’s Most Revered and Reviled Bird” by Andrew D. Blechman. 35 reviews, 4.5 stars, and available on Kindle. Also, “Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus,” a children’s book by Mo Willems, and awesome.