No need to panic about the ‘spy’ pigeons

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No need to panic about the ‘spy’ pigeons

Friday, 17 March 2023 | ANIl DHIR | BHUBANESWAR

The brouhaha about two spy pigeons being caught and the cameras attached to them being sent for forensic examination are now in the news with many speculations about their origins and intentions.

While pigeon photography is a technique invented in 1907, it became more popular after the Second World War when cameras fitted to pigeons were used by different armies. A homing pigeon was fitted with a breast harness to which lightweight time-delayed miniature cameras. Such spy pigeons were used till the 1970s, but with advancements in aerial photography using planes, military interest in pigeon photography faded and only hobby enthusiasts indulged in flying them.

The pigeons that have been caught are Belgian Homer Pigeons, the same breed that is used by the Odisha Pigeon Service. One has to understand that a homing pigeon is one which will fly back home after being released at a distance from its coop. No way can a pigeon be trained to fly to a destination and then return to the base it was released from. Pigeons fly only one way, i.e., back home. The important thing about homing pigeons is that they can't go from A to B and back. They can go from B to A.

The Odisha Police did have a few boomerang pigeon services in the early days when homer pigeons were kept at two places for some time. They would fly from one place to the other and vice versa, to and fro, but not to multiple places. However, these were not effective and were soon discontinued. 

The pigeons that have been caught are certainly birds that were used by enthusiasts who fitted cameras to track the path they take to fly back. They were fitted with GPS chips like done with many migratory birds at Chilika to trace the routes they take. Such miniature pigeon cameras and GPS locators are available on many e-commerce sites including Amazon.

The figures written on the fantail feathers are suggestive that they may have been released from Burma, Cambodia, Thailand or Vietnam. Some birds do lose their way and fly offshore and make emergency landings on ships. Pigeons, crows and sparrows cannot swim; they land on ships. This usually happens because of bad meteorological conditions when birds are carried offshore by strong winds. They end up on sailing ships because they manage to find enough food on them. Many seamen report birds that board vessels in a harbour and feed on grains, etc., until it reaches another port.

There should not be unnecessary panic about such birds. With modern-day technology, one does not need pigeons for aerial photography. Google Maps is more effective and reliable. The last official pigeon flight that was conducted by the Odisha Police Pigeon Service was on April 2018 when 200 missives were carried for INTACH Odisha by 50 pigeons from Bhubaneswar to Cuttack.

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