Spies in the Sky


Spies in the Sky

Illustration: Rutuja Patil/ Arré

Pigeons, it seems, are more talented than you and I had ever imagined. Not only are they flexible enough to have sex and lay eggs inside air conditioners and shoot shit at your head faster than you can say coo, they are also capable of striking fear in the hearts of the bravest of men.

The Indian police’s feathers were ruffled this week when a pigeon was discovered in Punjab with a note attached to its leg, threatening the prime minister. The note, written in Urdu, said, “Modi, we’re not the same people from 1971. Now each and every child is ready to fight against India.” It was signed Lashkar-e-Taiba.

Creepy stuff, even for a bird’s standards.

The BSF officer, who suspected that it had flown across the border, took it into custody immediately. After confirming that it hadn’t written the message itself, they presumably called its parents, fed it some birdseed, and let it go.

Now, if you feel that our security officials were being paranoid, you should probably know that it happens really often.

Last year, a pigeon was arrested, frisked, and let go under the same suspicion. In 2013, we arrested a falcon with a camera attached to its leg. In the same year, a stork was arrested in Egypt for “spying” (much to the alarm of all three bird activists in the world, it was eaten immediately after). Meanwhile, China, in 2014, proved once again that its people were the most efficient, by anal probing 10,000 pigeons before they were allowed to attend the Tiananmen Square anniversary.

There are two questions that need answering here: First, are birds really something we should be worrying about when there are other more pressing issues at hand? Second, who the hell has been representing all these birds in court?

Unfortunately, no convicted pigeon has been able to comment on the quality of legal representation. But the answer to the former is actually not so straightforward.

It turns out that pigeons aren’t called the “rats of the sky” for no reason. They are sneaky bastards who’ll often find themselves in places that burglars, perverts, and international spies, spend years trying to reach. They’re not only capable of sending messages that are virtually untraceable, but with modern-day equipment they can be used for aerial reconnaissance to track enemy movement.

How the kidnapee’s family manages to tie the money on the bird’s legs will forever be one of the world’s unsolved mysteries.

In both world wars, pigeons have been a critical part of the armies. The homing pigeon would carry notes, maps, photographs, and cameras. They were so good at this in fact, that several pigeons were awarded medals of bravery. The pigeons could share information on the position of the German soldier more efficiently than troops on the radio, since the radio was really easy to hack into, back in the day. Plus pigeons don’t waste time taking toilet breaks. Win-win.

In more recent times, however, terror outfits like the Islamic State have realised the benefits of having a few pigeons lying around. Jordanian officials claim to have found notes – much like our police have – with threatening messages and phone numbers, attached to the birds. This makes complete sense for the terror group, since the US is known to keep track on all forms of digital communication.

The most innovative use of homing pigeons though has to come from Iraq, where kidnappers have apparently been using them to collect ransom without running the risk of getting caught. How the kidnapee’s family manages to tie the money on the bird’s legs will forever be one of the world’s unsolved mysteries.

Pigeons can also come handy for prisoners, specifically these guys in Sao Paulo, who smuggled in phones and SIM cards into a high-security prison for months until the birds were caught. Costa Rican inmates were quick to pick up on the benefits of pigeon carriers, and took things up a notch by training them to carry cocaine, marijuana, and heroin into jails. As if the poor prison guards didn’t have enough to do; they now have to strip-search each bird flying into the facility.

But now this is where it gets really freaky. If these birds could be trained to smuggle cocaine, or carry spyware, what’s stopping us from sticking weapons onto them. According to a few reports, during the Cold War, the British military had briefly considered turning pigeons into live biological weapons. The plan was simple: Attach mini explosive capsules to about 1,000 birds and release them on the enemy. And if you’ve ever seen a flight of pigeon mass excrete on your car, you’ll know, there’s no stopping that.

Over the last few centuries that we have domesticated pigeons, we’ve figured out increasingly advanced techniques to train these birds to do almost anything. (I suspect the process involves a Mr Miyagi-like figure saying Pige-on, Pige-off a few times.) So the next time you’re tempted to laugh at the police scrambling to arrest a pigeon, think twice. It could be planning a coo.