Pigeons at Sea

Here’s an interesting postscript to Project Pigeon, the US wartime effort to train pigeons to guide bombs. In the late 1970s, Project Sea Hunt began training pigeons for a similar task, except that this time they were supposed to recognize orange objects floating in the water – like a life raft or a person in a life jacket. After a rigorous, and personalized (!) training program, the pigeons were deployed in a plexiglass dome on the bottom of a US Coast Guard helicopter, and in tests off Hawaii they proved to be startlingly good at the job.

SARPigeonPosterUnlike humans, pigeons don’t get bored of scanning the waves for hours, and they work like their next meal depends on it (which, with operant conditioning, it sort-of does). In the Hawaii tests, the pigeons spotted the targets (a simulated overturned life raft) before the humans 84% of the time, and frequently at a greater distance.

The project was cancelled in 1983 due to budget cuts, but not before tragedy had struck one team of Coast Guard pigeons. In 1979, one of the test aircraft was on a real Search and Rescue flight off Hawaii when it ran out of fuel and had to ditch. All four human crew were saved, but the pigeons didn’t make it.

More on Project Sea Hunt at the US Coast Guard’s Historian’s Office.

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