As digital technology becomes ever more advanced and high resolution cameras and transmitters become smaller, the idea that birds could be used for international espionage is growing, and every year a new story about a bird spy makes headlines. But how real is the possibility of wild birds being used for covert surveillance?
Birds as Spies
Migratory birds could be ideal for aerial surveillance for several reasons. First, during the natural phenomenon of migration birds follow the same paths in spring and fall, making their presence along those paths less suspicious. Since birds often fly at considerable heights, any surveillance equipment they carried could get wide, panoramic views that are difficult to get from ground-based operatives. Finally, because birds do not speak, if they are captured they are unable to reveal any additional secrets or information that could help an enemy.
Reported Spy Birds
While birds could make ideal undercover operatives, no recorded reports of so-called spy birds have ever been substantiated. Recent spy records include:
- 2008: Several rock pigeons in Iran were suspected of covert activities when they were found near nuclear facilities. No details of bands or transmitters on the birds were reported.
- 2010: A rock pigeon in India was wearing a band that identified it as being from Pakistan, though it had no electronics on its body. The bird was likely a captive bird from a racing enthusiast or pigeon fancier.
- 2011: A banded griffon vulture was accused of spying in Saudi Arabia because it carried a transmitter from Israel, which was revealed to be part of GPS equipment to track the bird's migration.
- 2012: A second banded griffon vulture with transmitting equipment from Israel was accused of spying in Sudan, but it was part of the same migration study group as the Saudi Arabian spy vulture.
- 2012: A European bee eater that had been banded in Israel was accused of spying when it was found in Turkey, and its enlarged nostrils – a natural genetic variation – were suspected of hiding equipment.
- 2013: A white stork was detained in Egypt because it carried a transmitter on its back, which was revealed to be tracking equipment for migration studies, not the camera it had been suspected of being.
- 2013: A common kestrel in Turkey was believed to be a spy because it wore a tag marked Israel, but no electronics were part of its accessories.
Despite the suspicion and paranoia surrounding birds that may be carrying cryptically labeled bands or small electronic trackers and transmitters, no authentic cases of birds used as spies have ever been proven.
The Real Bird Spies
While today's migrants may be providing no more information to scientists than the GPS path of their migration route, birds have historically been used for other covert activities, with varying degrees of success. In both World War I and World War II, trained homing pigeons carried coded messages between encampments, often including details on enemy troop deployments or other sensitive information. Many of these birds were credited with saving lives because they survived enemy fire in order to deliver their messages, and some were even given military honors for their service.
Both pigeons and corvids such as ravens and crows were experimented with for carrying military equipment such as cameras or recording devices, but such attempts never showed great promise because of the birds' unpredictability in the exact routes they followed. Modern military technology has benefited from the study of birds, however, and electronic drones that mimic bird shapes and flight patterns are being developed, though have not yet been put into regular use.
Wild birds may not make great spies, but as technology continues to develop to provide high definition cameras and sensitive recording equipment at increasingly small sizes, reports of suspected avian agents will no doubt continue.