Flights of fancy
BY Z A R R A R K H U H R O | 6/1/2015

LAST week much hilarity ensued when the Times of India ran a story about a `spy` pigeon, apparently from Pakistan, which had been detained in Pathankot in Indian Punjab. The offending avian reportedly bore a `stamped message and had a wire-like object on its body`.

More damningly, the message was partly in Urdu and bore a Pakistani phone number.

Vigilant authorities netted the bird before it could fly the coop and return to whatever nest of spies that had spawned it. In unrelated news, Najam Sethi`s TV show shut down after the unexplained disappearance of his famed `chirya`.

This isn`t the first case of such fowl play. In 2013, Indian forces found a dead falcon near Rajasthan that was fitted with a small camera on its leg. Three years before that, another suspected Pakistani pigeon was taken to a police station in Amritsar after being discovered by an eagle-eyed local.

Now for three pieces of good news: one, this isn`t leading into an earnest discussion of the often ridiculous heights Indo-Pak paranoia can soar to. Two: Pakistan and India aren`t the only countries to trade such accusations, and three: I`ve now gotten all the bird-related puns out of my system.

Last year, Saudi Arabia nabbed what it thought was an Israeli spy vulture, fitted as it was with a GPS transmitter and an identification code from a Tel Aviv University.

In 2013, a stork was captured in Egypt after a fisherman noticed a suspicious looking metal device on its back. It was duly arrested and examined, but then released, only to be eaten by villagers.

In 2012 officials in (then) Sudan proudly claimed the arrest of an Israeli spy eagle which they alleged was taking photos. The Iranians have not only arrested spy pigeons, but also once arrested 14 `spy squirrels` near a nuclear-enrichment plant.

While the above alerts were likely caused by identification markers (by enthusiasts in the case of pigeons) and tracking devices (in the case of migratory birds), our feathered friends have been used to transport messages for millennia, and have also been used for spying for over a century.

In 1908, German Dr Julius Neubronner patented a miniature camera that could be fitted to a pigeon. When the First World War broke out a few years later, the good doctor was forced to hand over all his pigeons and equipment to the authorities. However, while pigeons were extensively used in that conflict, it was in their traditional role as couriers rather than as spies. Pigeon power was in fact still a factor in the Second World War, where the Nazis appointed Himmler president of the German National Pigeon Special Service, commandeering all German pigeons for the Fuhrer`s service.

So serious was the Nazi pigeon threat that the British responded by training an elite squad of peregrine falcons to counter the German birds. Seriously, I`m not making this up.

The Cold War years also saw the CIA enter the game, developing a smaller pigeon camera that is still on display in the CIA museum in Langley. While the project was apparently a failure, the details of the pigeon ops remain classified to date. The Cold War also saw a successful operation involving a trained raven along with projects involving training dolphins for reconnaissance as well as `attack and kill` missions. James Bond villains will be disappointed to read that not a single project involved sharks with laser beams mounted on their heads.

But my personal favourite is the legendary Operation Acoustic Kitty. This Cold War project involved training a cat to listen to human voices, while ignoring other stimuli. Once trained, this cat was then `turned into a transmitter` by running a wire `from its inner ear to a battery and instrument cluster implanted in its ribcage`. It wasn`t a pleasant process, and one former CIA agent later remarked that `they made a monstrosity`.

Now kitted out, this feline Mata Hari/Frankenstein`s monster was to be sent into Russian embassies and maybe even the Kremlin to gain intel. However, word has it that when the cat was finally let out of the bag (sorry) it was promptly run over by a car and the mission ended in failure. According to one former CIA insider, the project cost about $20 million.

What`s in store now, given advances in miniaturisation and mind-machine interface? Well, the US`s Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency is experimenting with implanting tiny brain probes in moths and beetles to use these bugs as, well, bugs.

You`ll never look at an Amreekan Sundhi without suspicion again. But let`s close this can of worms and get back to the birds; it`s not just the real ones you have to worry about because the NSA has apparently been using apps like the popular Angry Birds game to collect information via targets` smart phones.

Anyone up for a reboot of Hitchcock`s Birds with a little Terminator action thrown in? •
The writer is a member of staff.

Twitter: @ZarrarKhuhro

Published in Dawn