In A Nutshell
Because the guidance systems of World War II were too large and too primitive to serve much use, the US Navy needed an alternative. They turned to Harvard professor of psychology B.F. Skinner, who utilized a family of animals which had served humans during many wars, including World War I and World War II: pigeons. Drawing on his background in behavioral psychology, Skinner trained pigeons to become the American equivalent to the Japanese kamikaze: pilots who steered their vehicles into their target, which, for the pigeons, were missiles. Although Project Pigeon (its code name) proved rather effective, the government discontinued the project as electronic guidance systems became increasingly efficient.
The Whole Bushel
In 1939, after hearing how the Germans had bombed Warsaw from airplanes, Skinner wondered to himself whether a shell or missile could be effectively guided to its target. While riding in a passenger train, he noticed a flock of birds flying in formation alongside him and saw them as “devices with excellent vision and extraordinary maneuverability.” Hoping to find a solution to the haphazard nature with which bombs were dropped, Skinner proceeded to buy some pigeons and began training them at his home.
The pigeons would be awarded kernels of corn whenever they pecked at a specific target image. To hold them steady, they were placed in a special harness and suspended in front of the screen. Pigeons are renowned for their eyesight, and Skinner felt he could form a rudimentary steering apparatus by, in his words, packaging “a pigeon in a man’s sock with its head and neck protruding through a hole in the toe.” (He later developed a more sophisticated system in which the pigeon moved pairs of lightweight rods which closed electrical contacts, enabling them to steer.)
Skinner began his experiments by pushing a cart with the pigeons steering around the room, while they looked for grain attached to a bull’s-eye on the wall. Realizing that wasn’t an ideal method, he placed a screen in front of the pigeons and used their pecks, which were directed at the food, as a control system. Seeing an invaluable use for his “pigeon missiles,” Skinner approached the National Defense Research Committee on June 9, 1941 but they rejected his idea on the spot.
After the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, Skinner felt he needed to give his idea one more go. This time he filmed his birds and the NDRC expressed mild interest but weren’t very sure. It took the prodding of A.D. Hyde, the head of the mechanical division of General Mills, to get them to agree to help Skinner refine the system. After the changes, his idea was accepted and, in June 1943, Project Pigeon was officially sanctioned by the US government. Skinner relocated to Florida with a “squadron” of 64 pigeons and began actual bombing experiments.
After a number of different training stages, which involved depriving the pigeons of food for 36 hours, using various methods to get them to determine the proper target, and attempting to distract them with loud noises, the pigeons were finally ready to be brought to Washington to be evaluated. (Of the 64 pigeons he gathered, Skinner remarked: “Every bird earned his wings with an A grade.”) Fun fact: during the training program, it was noticed that pigeons which were given hemp seeds were not only fearless, but worked faster than those fed normal grain.
In January 1944, the NDRC’s parent body, the Office of Scientific Research and Development, after seeing the results to date, voted on whether or not to fund Project Pigeon any further. Hugh S. Spencer of the NDRC was quoted as saying: “It is not quite good enough to be promising; it is not quite bad enough to throw away.” Unfortunately for Skinner, but perhaps fortunately for the pigeons, the OSRD decided against funding the project, which deeply saddened the professor, who kept testing them at home, discovering that they remembered their training up to six years after the fact.
Skinner’s research was briefly revived after World War II as Project Orcon (for “organic control”) by the US Navy. It was initially successful, but was canceled in 1953 when electronic guidance systems finally became reliable and small enough to be used effectively.