Is It A Bird? A Plane? A Bomb? Project Pigeon Was All Three

(This is the fourth in an ongoing series on animal weapons.  The first three posts can be found here, here, and here.)

Today’s story is probably one of the few attempts to create an animal weapon that wasn’t doomed from the start.

One of the holy grails of Artificial Intelligence, it has taken scientists decades to develop electronic systems that duplicate the human brain’s ability to see and identify complex objects.  Even today, most guided missiles rely on a human operator to pick out the target.  But, in the final days of World War II, one man demonstrated that you didn’t need a fancy mind to guide a bomb to its target.  All you needed was a bird, some marijuana, and a genius behavioral scientist.

The genius was B.F. Skinner, animal behaviorist and inventor of operant conditioning.  While working at Harvard, Skinner demonstrated that by using food rewards you could train animals to engage in certain behaviors. When America entered World War II, Skinner realized that he could use his technique to teach animals to recognize targets and guide a bomb towards them.  His proposed breed of pilot? The humble pigeon.

With government funding, Project Pigeon proved that you could train pigeons to recognize a building from aerial photos and then have them peck at it on a screen.  If you rigged the screen with electrical contacts, those pecks could drive the flaps on a bomb to aim it towards the target.  The resulting explosion was rough on the pigeon, but had far better results than those from unguided bombs.  Interestingly, Skinner found that the pigeons were calmer and more precise if their feed was infused with hemp – an early example of the effect of marijuana’s active ingredient, THC.

Alas, there were just too many people who considered Project Pigeon to be bird-brained, and it would probably have been almost impossible to train, care for and transport enough pigeon bombardiers to make a difference in the air war.  After the war, the Navy revived Skinner’s experiments as Project ORCON (for ORganic CONtrol) but canceled it in 1953 when it became clear that electronics would be smaller, more reliable and less smelly than a pigeon arsenal.

The pigeon bomb’s practical failure didn’t faze Skinner.  In 1958 he returned to Harvard as a full professor and spent the rest of his career working on less explosive experiments in psychology.

(Project Pigeon was only a sideline in American research on guided weapons.  You can read all about the other World War II guided bomb projects, and their successors, at Greg Goebel’s excellent VectorSite.)

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