As regular CFZ-watchers will know, for some time Corinna has been doing a column for Animals & Men and a regular segment on On The Track... particularly about out-of-place birds and rare vagrants. There seem to be more and more bird stories from all over the world hitting the news these days so, to make room for them all - and to give them all equal and worthy coverage - she has set up this new blog to cover all things feathery and Fortean.

Wednesday, 17 June 2015

Eyes in the Sky: A Short History of Bird Spies

It’s not paranoia if it’s true.

By Emma BryceJune 11, 2015

Earlier this month, police in India detained a pigeon on suspicion of espionage. Not only were its feathers stamped with suspicious numbers and words, but its coloring suggested it was a species from neighboring Pakistan, India’s arch enemy. Was the bird a…spy?

It may sound crazy—and the story was widely ridiculed in the media—but the fear of undercover avians has deep roots, and history tells us it’s not unfounded: For more than a century, birds have served as bona fide 007s.

The origins of the bird-as-spy meme can be traced back to 1907, when a German pigeon fancier named Julius Neubronner devised a small automatic camera to strap onto his birds to learn what routes they took from Point A to Point B. His invention paved the way for the very first aerial photography, and camera-fitted pigeons were deployed by the German military during World War I.

Pigeon-based espionage rose to fame during World War II as keepers across Britain and the United States donated their homing birds for use by Allied troops in relaying secret messages across enemy lines. The U.S. Central Intelligence Agency also began strapping cameras onto top-secret reconnaissance pigeons. As the agency explains with a straight face on its website: “Being a common species, the pigeon concealed its role as an intelligence collection platform among the activities of thousands of other birds.” (Sadly, while pigeons are apparently excellent at recon—they naturally fly low enough to take detailed shots of the land—examples of their work are hard to come by: Many of the CIA’s “pigeon missions”remain classified to this day.)

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