Military Carrier Pigeons in the Era of Electronic Warfare

They have advantages:

Pigeons are certainly no substitute for drones, but they provide a low-visibility option to relay information. Considering the storage capacity of microSD memory cards, a pigeon's organic characteristics provide front line forces a relatively clandestine mean to transport gigabytes of video, voice, or still imagery and documentation over considerable distance with zero electromagnetic emissions or obvious detectability to radar. These decidedly low-technology options prove difficult to detect and track. Pigeons cannot talk under interrogation, although they are not entirely immune to being held under suspicion of espionage. Within an urban environment, a pigeon has even greater potential to blend into the local avian population, further compounding detection.

The author points out that both France and China still maintain a small number of pigeons in case electronic communications are disrupted.

And there's an existing RFC.

EDITED TO ADD (2/13): The Russian military is still using pigeons.

Posted on January 24, 2019 at 6:38 AM • 37 Comments


Clive RobinsonJanuary 24, 2019 7:52 AM

@ Bruce,

And they forgot to mention the "If all else fails option" where you are required to "swallow the secrets" etc...

Most things do taste better with a nice helping of pigeon pie ;-)

More seriously pigeons have a better power to weight ratio than drones, are often self fueling and quite good at evasive manovers as any one who has had to shot them as "vermin" know.

Also whilst drones might be faster over relatively short distances (less than 0.5km) pigeons can maintain a a distance time advabtage not just over drones but also over some helicopters and light aircraft on large distances.

But it's not just pigeons that are usefull to modern guard labour, dogs have quite a few advantages in terms of smell, speed and raw aggression.

But research is investigating the abilities of other creatures including mice and bees and some fish etc.

Consider for instance the ability to weaponise locust, to destroy your enemies food supply. It was tried by the US with chemical weapons two or three times since WWII in Asia, and whilst chemicals did not reach the tipping point history shows that "biblical" plagues not only occure but are quite successful at destroying societies.

The simple fact is nature "in tooth and claw" under the process of evoloution has filled various niches where even modern science can not yet take us.

scotJanuary 24, 2019 8:27 AM

Don't even have to hit the link to know it's RFC 1149, IP over avian carriers. We covered that in my Unix networking class a couple of years after it came out.

EdwardBeJanuary 24, 2019 8:31 AM

I like the "invisible string theory" from Iran. Let us not forget the incendiary bats of WWII, also.
I wonder if anyone is working on lightweight stealth technology for drones, or an AI for drones that thinks it is a pigeon...

WinterJanuary 24, 2019 8:53 AM

"The author points out that both France and China still maintain a small number of pigeons in case electronic communications are disrupted. "

This puts the popularity of pigeon racing in France and China in a different light.

Clive RobinsonJanuary 24, 2019 9:18 AM

@ Mustafa Turan,

Yup as many as 40million Chinese starved to death due to amongst other pests locusts (hence my comment above about weaponising them and biblical plagues).

Another that might be of interest was the Australian Emu War, where man with machine guns failed fairly miserably against Emu's that some how fell naturally into guerilla group survival tactics.

Having defeted battle hardened soldiers, the Australian government went back to a more successful "bounty program" but due to preasure from "whingeing poms" eventually they went with "Pest Exclusion Fencing"...

Every time I hear talk about "Trumps Wall" I'm reminded of the Emu War and how Australian "bird brains" defeated "Military Intelligence". I can not help wondering what would have happened if Emu's had hands with opposable thumbs...

Nathan GilliattJanuary 24, 2019 9:18 AM

Funny timing. I recently read an early reviewer of a new book on the UK's covert pigeon operation in WWII. By the end, I was a little tired of pigeon details, but it's a story that I'd never heard, and it's interesting to think about the logistics of using the birds in espionage.

Operation Columba—The Secret Pigeon Service: The Untold Story of World War II Resistance in Europe

Winter, to your point, pigeon fanciers played a prominent role in the operation, and governments were quite aware of the risk of hostile pigeons.

VinnyGJanuary 24, 2019 9:19 AM

@Clive Robinson re: pigeon pie - That dish is virtually unknown in the US. I expect were it offered on a menu somewhere, the PETA-philes would be in the streets the next day... re:weaponizing locusts - I never much thought about the concept above the micro-organism level (e.g., development of a disease agent that would zero-in on some behavioral attribute deemed undesirable that is hard-linked to some specific biological key.) Your example seems to present an equally steep and slippery slope, possibly more so. Even assuming (very doubtful) that one could find a moral and ethical justification for deployment, what would be the plan to stop the engineered locusts once the adversary's food was gone? I suppose in theory one could breed in some susceptibility or other, but given nature, my confidence in that vulnerability persisting over multiple generations is quite low (of course, the hypothetical micro-organism could mutate to attack untargeted folks...)

dafyddJanuary 24, 2019 9:29 AM

It's nice to see security academics recognizing the same potential in pigeons as the writers and director of /John Wick 2/...

TatütataJanuary 24, 2019 10:25 AM

BTW, there are a number of studies on carrier pigeons at the Defense Technical Information Service. However, the site has been nearly unusable for the last several months (the cause is probably not shutdown related), at least without the US.

Snarki, child of LokiJanuary 24, 2019 11:54 AM

Carrier-pigeon is a GREAT way to add backup redundancy to internet connections!

Even if the pigeon leg-band (with the microsd chip) gets lost in flight, you can still deliver a tweet.

Clive RobinsonJanuary 24, 2019 1:18 PM

@ VinnyG,

Even assuming (very doubtful) that one could find a moral and ethical justification for deployment, what would be the plan to stop the engineered locusts once the adversary's food was gone?

In war morals and ethics are shall we say a little flexible to put it politely.

As was once pointed out to me when wearing the green "In war there is no such thing as a noble savage, just savages, who follows the Patton maxim of 'No bastard ever won a war by dying for his country, he won it by making some other poor dumb bastard die for his country'". After all what do people think the order "Take no prisoners"[1] realy means?

The expression "Total Warfare" is one that again people avoid defining[2], it's basically an order for genocide by any means possible. The fact that politicians can give these dictats with equanimity to Generals who then pass them down the chain of command till it arrives at the frontline troops who are required to obay on pain of death from summery field court-marshal execution, and who will likewise be condemed to death by execution if their side looses, should tell you if they would have any qualms about weaponising insects like locusts.

From the point of view of super powers releasing weaponised insects like locust is not realy an issue in proxy wars. Such creatures unlike bacteria or virii don't effect their troops who they can keep resupplied indefinitely and due to climate differences will not get back to the home nation. When the food supply is gone, the locusts like the local population will simply die by starvation. Thus from the super power point of view after one or two seasons at most they will have a near empty land that is quite safe to recolonise as they see fit.

To ordinary mortals it sounds horific but is a fairly quick death by starvation compared to the long drawn out dibilitation and death by dioxin or radiological poisoning realy any worse?

[1] Take no prisoners : to be totally ruthlessly, aggressive or uncompromising in the pursuit of the ordered objective by the use of total warfare, killing any and all who get in the way of the objective regardless of if they have surrendered or not.

[2] From the OED, Total warfare : a war that is unrestricted in terms of the weapons used, the territory or combatants involved, or the objectives pursued, especially one in which the laws of war are disregarded.

John CochranJanuary 24, 2019 2:08 PM

The RFC mentioned is obviously out of date. After all, the RFC specifies the use of a small piece of paper to hold the datagram whereas the article specifies a far denser transmission medium. Perhaps a newer RFC needs to be issued to handle the improvements in technology. And there's plenty of time available for the newer RFC since there's 66 more days until the original RFC's anniversary.

AndersJanuary 24, 2019 2:34 PM

Russian military is still using pigeons.

Use Google translate

"Были еще грамота Главного управления связи Вооруженных Сил РФ и толстая книжка "Военно-голубиная связь". Оказывается, почтовые голуби используются в нашей армии и по сей день..."

TRXJanuary 24, 2019 2:49 PM

512Gb micro-SD cards are available.

Over medium range, a single card moved by pigeon would blow away ordinary broadband for transfer rate. That's a lot of high resolution images and bulky intelligence data...

DakJanuary 24, 2019 3:00 PM

I'm shocked that you didn't go for the Dreaded Carrier Squid.

Humorously yrs,
(David A. Keldsen)

PhaeteJanuary 24, 2019 3:04 PM

I am getting visual and auditory flashbacks of severe intensity.

We didn't get any messages, and Captain Blackadder definitely did not shoot that delicious plump-breasted pigeon.

Mike BarnoJanuary 24, 2019 4:40 PM

@ Clive Robinson :
"a nice helping of pigeon pie"

Not in pie form, but here in Binghamton, New York, Sharkey's restaurant has been serving "City Chicken" for at least seventy years. And it ain't Gallus gallus domesticus.

VinnyGJanuary 24, 2019 6:40 PM

@Clive Robinson re:locusts - my question was only partly about morals. It was equally about how those geniuses thought they could with certainty limit the damage to the enemy's food supply. Locust swarms are highly mobile, and the insects tend to ignore lines drawn on maps...

Clive RobinsonJanuary 24, 2019 7:50 PM

@ Mike Barno,

Sharkey's restaurant has been serving "City Chicken" for at least seventy years.

Has @Bruce been in to do a review yet ;-)

But yes there are several types of "rock dove" including what I call "low flying scabies" or "flying rat". Apparently the diseased little squabs are getting healthier as the parents now line their nests with "cigarette ends" and the freebased nicotine in the filters kills off the mangy pests that infect them...

Dove Cotes used to be a common sight in medieval Britain because their meat had magical properties unlike wild rabbit. That magical property is "fat"[1] without which humans very assuredly will die (unlike carbohydrates which you can live without). Unlike humans rabbits can more easily survive on very very low body fat and thus in winter and times of blight they could survive but the humans eating them could not. However well fed domesticated rabbits do have sufficient fat for human survival so leave out the "Watetship down" lot and go for "floppsy and moppsy" instead ;-)

Apparently both "rock doves" and "wood pigeon" although both considered lean do have sufficient fat if you eat some of their internal organs, they also more importantly produce eggs that will grow into squabs (chicks) without the aid of incubators unlike many breeds of domestic chicken.

I've been known to eat a fair amount of wood pigeon, that have made the mistake of trying to get fat off of my spring salad etc. Apparently some of my neighbours have objected, but the officialdom they call does not seem very aquainted with the laws on "vermin" which all creatures that eat "crops grown by man" or "eat food from mans plate" fall into.

However my choice for "survival" meat would be grazing water fowl such as ducks or geese as both when well fed produce lots of fat[2] that is of real use to preserve the cooked meat --see "confit" which is a "Garde manger" process-- for some time. They also produce eggs you can eat but be warned they are quite a bit stronger in taste.

[1] Fat, salt, vitimin C and yeast extract are things that are esential to your well being that are going to be difficult to obtain in temperate or colder zones.

[2] For survivalists the four things you will have most troubles with in the long term are your basic preservers of Salt, Fat, Sugar and Alcohol with the less common preservers "citric acid" and "water glass" (there are also nitrates but they are not essential). Whilst you can "air dry" and "smoke" as preserving methods they can be quite problematical. Ancient stone age hunters used to preserve meat by tying rocks to it and chucking it into a deep cold pond which robbed most but not all bacteria of oxygen they need to survive and kept spores at to low a temprature to become active. The exception would of course be the one that whilst harmless in oxygen, when surviving anaerobically at "pantry temperatures" produces the most poisonous neurotoxin known to man, yup that friend of the "botox set" Clostridium botulinum. It's why you have to take other precautions when "canning meat" either in real cans or preserving jars,

Clive RobinsonJanuary 24, 2019 8:15 PM

@ VinnyG,

Locust swarms are highly mobile, and the insects tend to ignore lines drawn on maps...

Sorry I did not make it as clear as I could with the exception of China, super powers are outside of the climate and temprature range locust can survive in. Thus the super powers do not care about if loucust can swarm or not because they are never going to reach the super powers home turf.

Thus two super powers fight their proxy war in asia, and the locust will wipe out the native food supplies and if not fed from other places the natives as well. The locust likewise will die out due to starvation and though some will have layed down the next generation they to will not have sufficient food. Thus after a couple of years the locust will be back within managable quantities, but the natives will be gone or too decimated to do much other than capitulate.

As we saw with the Korean Peninsula war of the 1950's Russia only formented the trouble to start the war, then dumped it into China's lap. Neither Russia or America cared two hoots about the native population and their issues. The use of dioxin based anti-folients by the US are estemated to have killed atleast a third of the native population and when that was not successfull the US commander in the field demanded nuclear weapons. Thankfully slightly saner minds refused the request. But make no mistake if weaponised locust had been available to the US they would have certainly tried them out.

But tangentialy getting back to pigeons look up the work of B.F.Skinner his box and his indirect involvment with "pigeon brained smart weapons"...

CallMeLateForSupperJanuary 25, 2019 9:59 AM

@Mike Barno "Sharkey's restaurant has been serving "City Chicken" for at least seventy years. And it ain't Gallus gallus domesticus."

Which is why I stick (no pun) with spiedies. Sharkey's used to be OK for those but Lupo's is better, I think.

(Unless we're havin' spiedies.) :-)

VinnyGJanuary 25, 2019 10:15 AM

@CMLFS re:spiedes - had to look that one up. Surprising, as I spent four cold winters in Delaware County early in my IT career, and never ran into that dish. We were poor, didn;t get out much, and when we did we generally roamed East into Sullivan (mostly Roscoe or Lanza's up on Shandalee) - maybe that is the reason...

albertJanuary 26, 2019 9:53 AM

Micro-SD cards can carry a lot of data with encryption, but they will generate suspicion if found. They cannot be hidden. However, microdots can be hidden inside the pigeons leg band. They don't hold gigabytes, but enough for most tactical applications.
Anyone recall Project Pigeon?
. .. . .. --- ....

CallMeLateForSupperJanuary 26, 2019 10:05 AM


Delaware County has IT? I am shocked! Shocked!, I tell you. :-) I banged around the vicinity of Franklin in the 90's, searching cemeteries for a certain remote relative, and was impressed by how remote most of the county is despite its being so close to civilization.

Roscoe, just across the Sullivan Co. border, used to be famous among IBMers because it 1) was almost exactly half way between Poughkeepsie and Endicott and 2) the Roscoe Diner served big portions of great food.

Not surprised that "spiedies" was not in your vocabulary; pretty much "local knowledge".

BUT... Decades ago, and after acquiring said local knowledge, I described spiced and charbroiled pork/lamb/beef/venison on a skewer to a sister who happens to be a closet Julia Child. Her puzzled scowl immediately disappeared, then she blithely informed me - in a voice that implied the whole world already knew - that what I raved about was actually a Greek thing called "souvlaki".

Luzugaz Fenyev-BaixarJanuary 26, 2019 12:45 PM

John Le Carré’s memoir “The Pigeon Tunnel” appears to deal with the use of VPNs for avian networking, and includes as well some discussion of end-point security.

Dan H.January 28, 2019 7:48 AM

IP over Avian Carriers is actually in use commercially by at least one American company, to the best of my knowledge. This is a white-water rafting company.

They business relies on a couple of things: getting dumb tourists from one end of a white water section to another more or less safely, and then when said tourists get back to the base of the company, selling them exciting photos of their heroic exploits on these white water rafts. Getting photos is easy enough; the organisers know all the best, most photogenic spots and target them with photographers.

However, getting the photos back to base ahead of the tourists who will be flying back by helicopter is a bit more tricky. Obviously a sat-phone would work, but for the data volumes this is impractical. So the company simply sticks the best photos onto micro-SD cards, straps these onto carrier pigeons and then sends the info back to base that way (using multiple pigeons because of losses on the way due to hawks).

So, once the tour is over the tourists get flown back to the base camp to be greeted as if by magic with large, well-edited posters of their exploits ready for them to purchase (which they always do, since boasting about white water rafting is all part of the experience).

WeatherFebruary 2, 2019 12:21 AM

The Chinese wouldn't use them in war time, for the worry of enlarging the enemy resistance.

WeatherFebruary 19, 2019 2:05 AM

So you are a April fulls sucker, but there was some good information in there ,
I will let you find..

1&1~=UmmFebruary 19, 2019 3:11 AM

@Iron Tofu:

"this RFC was issued on April Fools Day (1 April)?"

Most back then were eagerly awaiting it's release, because every year an April Fools Day RFC was issued, jusy for the fun of it, like an "Easter Egg" it was a gift of a smile.

The point about a good April Fools Day joke is it should be not only possible to do, but just on the in field side of credible.

As it turns out though, technology and time makes fools of us all, and now it is not just possible and practical it actually has advantages as has been pointed out above.

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