Pigeon Guided Missiles (the bird-brained military scheme that almost happened!)
This week we're thrilled to have guest blogger Courtney Humphries posting with us. Courtney is the author of Superdove: How the Pigeon Took Manhattan...And the World and today she's riffing on pigeons in the military. We'll let her take it from here:
As I investigated the unusual history of our friend the pigeon, one of the most bizarre stories I encountered was of Project Pigeon: psychologist B.F. Skinner's government-funded project to develop a pigeon-guided missile during WWII.
At the time, Skinner was still early in his controversial career as a pioneer of behaviorism, and Skinner had developed ways to "shape" an animal's behavior by giving it food rewards. He thought he could harness the navigational abilities of birds to his own purposes—namely, designing missiles that could be guided directly to a target. In 1940, Skinner bought some pigeons and began training them. He found that if they were restrained in tube socks, the birds could learn to peck a visual target on a screen in order to receive food. His idea was to put a pigeon into a missile and have the birds guide it to a specific target they had been trained to recognize beforehand.
Persisting in the face of skepticism from colleagues, Skinner secured a private grant from General Mills—along with some lab space in an old flour mill.
Eventually he won a government contract to develop an "organic homing device."
Amazingly, there was some merit to his scheme. Skinner managed to develop a simulator in which he tested the pigeons' performance. If properly trained, the birds would steer toward their targets with machine-like consistency even if exposed to extreme noise or pressure. Skinner even developed an apparatus that employed three pigeons pecking at once, to build some redundancy into the system. In the end, however, Skinner was unable to convince his funders that pigeons could truly be trusted as pilots—the sight of a jacketed pigeon pecking its target was just too silly.
After two years of work, Project Pigeon ended before its pilots ever had a chance to get off the ground. But Skinner went on to adopt pigeons as his primary research subject, and today they are used in psychology labs around the world.
Want more stories about pigeons? Click here to purchase Courtney's wonderful book Superdove: How the Pigeon Took Manhattan...And the World. And be sure to check out Tuesday's post on Surprising Facts about Rats with Wings.