International flap

Alleged Chinese spy pigeon is the latest in a long, long tradition

Published February 20, 2024

A suspected Chinese spy was recently released from a hospital in India. 

The “spy” in question was a pigeon held by authorities in Mumbai after they discovered a message written on its wings that appeared to be in Chinese. Officials sent the bird to an animal hospital, where it was held for eight months until PETA India successfully demanded its release.

Naturally the story made global headlines, but it brought up more questions than it answered: Was the pigeon an actual spy? If yes, what was its mission? That suspicious pigeon on my stoop: is it spying on me?

Millennia of missives

Pigeons have long been known to have the ability to find their way back to their home “roosts,” even over long distances, and so the strategic use of pigeons as messengers goes back thousands of years. There is evidence that pigeons were used in Ancient Egypt, by the Roman military, and in 8th-century Northern Africa and the Middle East (which came in handy during the Third Crusade a few centuries later). While the London-to-Paris telegraph cable was under construction in 1850, Reuters used the birds to deliver stock prices.

But pigeons really came into their own during the Franco-Prussian War, carrying thousands of messages in and out of besieged Paris, transported via balloon. In December 1870, one such pigeon carried microfilm–yes, 19th-century microfilm–714 miles from Perpignan to Brussels, making the trip in 10 hours. 

After that, pigeon services popped up all over Europe. From a military standpoint, pigeons were easy to transport, ate little, and could travel at speeds over 60 mph. Unlike dogs (which had been used by the Germans), they were not distracted by tantalizing battlefield smells. They didn’t betray their origin or their destination, and they did their best to get back to their roost as rapidly as possible, even when injured by cross-fire.

World warriors

Telephones and telegraphs saw use in World War I, but neither was as reliable as the good ol’ pigeon. The National Archives of both the U.K. and the U.S have vast collections of bird-borne messages from every branch of service. A replica of a pigeon spy camera is on display at a German spy museum. 

One pigeon named President Wilson assisted the American tank corps and U.S. infantrymen in battle. He famously helped the 78th Infantry during the Meuse-Argonne Offensive, when his unit released him to request artillery support. The Germans opened fire on him, and despite sustaining injuries, President Wilson made it back to headquarters in under 25 minutes. 

Another pigeon named Cher Ami was awarded the Croix de Guerre by the French government, and later placed on display at the National Museum of American History. 

War pigeons kept on transmitting during the Second World War. As part of Operation Market Garden, 82 of them were dropped into the Netherlands with the First Airborne Division Signals. The pigeons would fly back to their loft in London to deliver messages, 240 miles away.

The amazing birds also played a vital role on D-Day. And 32 WWII pigeons received Great Britain’s Dickin Medal, granted to animals that displayed gallantry under fire. (Other recipients: 3 horses, 18 dogs, and a ship’s cat).

Back on their birdshit

Fascism didn’t end with WW2, and neither did avian espionage. During the Cold War, the CIA trained pigeons to carry advanced photographic equipment–yup, they were spies. The mission was controversial because in order to train the birds, they had to test the technology on unsuspecting American citizens. The project yielded high-resolution photos with important details, but because it involved “domestic surveillance” of citizens, the idea was seemingly discontinued by 1978.

That said, a 2021 CIA video stated that “parts of the mission are still actually classified.” So yes, that suspicious pigeon might be spying on you. And the one released in India might have been a Chinese spy, who will now resume smuggling secrets out of the country and tip the geopolitical scales in ways we can’t even imagine.Perhaps it’s time to commence Operation Lehrer.

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