The Army of BIRDS You've Never Heard Of
Birds have been used by the military around the world. Let's investigate the deployment of feathered soldiers!Animals
More than 100,000 ducks are being herded across China into some sort of massive, flapping army! Has there been an explosion in a nearby bread factory? Or has a giant grain silo flipped over? Why else would such a huge gathering of ducks ever occur unless they’ve been trained for this?!
But who would train an army of more than 100,000 ducks? It turns out, the answer to that question lies with the Chinese government! Amazingly, every last one of these ducks has an invaluable purpose, one that could save the population of an entire country!
Let’s deep dive into the mystery of why China decided to assemble a duck army, and discover even more of the strange and unbelievable ways birds have been used for fowl play in warfare!
China's Duck Army
Before we get into China’s ducks though, we need to head over to America and take a look at a creature that’s a little less cute and a lot more annoying: mayflies.
If you ever decide to go for a canoe trip down the Mississippi River, then double check your dates, because if you go at the wrong time, you could find yourself trapped in the massive summer mayfly swarms!
These pesky flies spend most of their lives underwater as aquatic nymphs. But then come the sunny summer months, and these nymphs burst upwards into the air in swarms of up to 18 trillion!
That’s more than 2300 times the number of people on earth! These immense mayfly swarms cover every available surface. But not to worry, as mayflies are harmless. They can’t bite or sting, as they are born without mouths! Their only purpose is to mate and then die. And when they die, do they pile up.
But what if mayflies did have mouths, and were born with a never-ending hunger? Considering the size of the swarms they can gather in, that’s a pretty terrifying concept, right?!
Such a creature already exists! It's called locust, a bug that terrorizes the biggest continents on the planet! A cousin of the grasshopper, it begins life in a humble, solitary state. However, during dry spells when vegetation becomes scarce, the usually solitary locusts are crowded together in these remaining green patches to search for food.
This sudden social gathering initiates a transformation in the insects, whereby they become gregarious locusts. Their color changes from brown to yellow, their bodies shrink, and their brains get 30% larger!
This radical change is due to the hormone serotonin being released into their central nervous systems; this not only makes locusts more sociable, but hungrier too! And when the rains return, these gregarious locusts breed furiously, multiplying their population into the millions!
In 2020, 400 billion locusts ransacked Africa’s crops! And over the Arabian sea in Pakistan, the country had to declare a national emergency over its onslaught of locust swarms! The reason for these apocalyptic swarms, was the intense cyclone season of 2018-2019 that soaked the Arabian Peninsula with heavy rains.
This turned arid desert into lush grassland, where gregarious locusts were able to take part in unprecedented amounts of breeding, creating these superstorm swarms!
A single locust swarm can contain up to 150 million insects, making them as large as 250 soccer pitches. And just like a soccer player, locusts have an insatiable appetite! Each bug eats its own body weight in vegetation daily. In 24 hours, a locust swarm can consume more crops than 35,000 people!
In 2020, Pakistan was overrun by locust swarms; the bugs covered 19,000 square miles of farmland and devoured the crops! This plunged the country into a food crisis and put millions of people at risk of famine.
That’s when China, which shares a 370-mile border with Pakistan, became nervous. It wouldn’t take long for the locust swarms to start invading Chinese farms! So, they came up with an ingenious plan, one that would definitely fit the bill!
They would deploy an army of 100,000 ducks!
You may think that the Chinese government must be totally bird-brained to come up with such a weird idea. But it’s smarter than you think; they planned to use the ducks as “biological weapons” to take down the locust plague!
While more traditionally farmed insect eaters, like chickens, can only consume 70 locusts per day, a duck can consume three times that, eating up to 200 locusts a day! So, if we do a little math here, an army of 100,000 ducks could theoretically annihilate 20 million locusts per day!
They should start floating a duck army down the Mississippi river to tackle the mayflies’ swarms and save people a trip to the carwash!
Furthermore, while chickens tend to scatter in every direction unless penned in, ducks naturally flock together and so are easy to herd in huge groups. And China has had success with its duck battalion before. Back in 2000, 30,000 ducks were deployed to fight off a locust infestation in the province of Xinjiang, up in the north-west of China.
So, could this be the solution to Pakistan’s plight? Who will win this epic showdown! 100,000 ducks or billions of locusts? Well, it turns out this plan wasn’t all it was quacked up to be. Even a 100,000-strong army of ducks wouldn’t be enough to put a dent in the locust swarms.
A locust swarm can contain up to 150 million bugs, meaning it would take the Chinese duck army a whole week to consume them all! And that’s only if the locusts were to stay in one place, but these swarms fly on the wind and can travel up to 93 miles per day!
To truly eradicate a locust swarm, you’d need a lot more ducks. To tackle a single swarm made up of 150 million in just a few days, you’d need at least 750,000 ducks! And even if a country could raise that colossal number of ducklings, water-loving ducks would not be able to survive in Pakistan’s dry desert landscape. So instead, Pakistan’s locust plague was tackled with the use of pesticides.
In February 2020, a National Action Plan for locust control involved spraying some 300,000 liters of insecticide over the region. But that doesn’t mean ducks can’t be put to good use on a smaller scale! Ducks can be a vital help to farmers!
Two of the biggest problems faced by rice farmers are weeds and pests. Weeds can take over fields and steal nutrients from growing crops, while pests destroy and consume anything being grown.
One pest in particular, the golden apple snail, though originally native to South America, has become one of the most destructive invasive species in the world! It’s quickly become the arch nemesis of rice farmers everywhere!
Up until now farmers have used quick fix chemical pesticides to rid their paddies of golden apple snails. But recently, with threats to the environment mounting due to climate change, they’ve abandoned harmful pesticides and returned to a more traditional method, using ducks!
Though slurping up a raw, slimy golden apple snail may sound super gross to you and me, to ducks they’re delicious! Luckily then, the ducks can swim along the water in the rice paddies and feast on these pests to their heart’s content.
Meanwhile, the fecal matter they leave behind provides the crops with important nutrients, such as phosphorous and nitrogen, that they need to grow! Not only that, but ducks are also all-round rice paddy helpers, with their wide feet helping to flatten down the mud which makes the paddies easier to plough.
Using ducks in rice paddies is a technique that has been used in China for hundreds of years, going back to sometime in the 15th century! Today, it’s a popular farming method used in Thailand, where in March 2020 there were some 7.5 million ducks used in rice paddies across the country!
Farmers routinely raise whole flocks of around 10,000 ducks to let loose in their fields where they tackle pests and weeds, ensuring a larger harvest of rice. This is vital for Thailand’s economy, as the country exports some 8 million tons of rice per year!
However, once the rice crop becomes mature, it’s time to keep the ducks away, as these paddy helpers can turn into villains and actually start stealing the rice if they get hungry enough!
I guess that old Batman quote is true: you either die a hero or live long enough to see yourself become the villain! And I don’t think any country is ready to deal with a tiny army of evil, rice hungry QuackMen!
Ducks aren’t the only birds that have been enlisted by governments around the world, however. So, let’s explore some other birds that have proven they’re more versatile and valuable than we could have ever imagined!
If you’re ever crossing the border from Vietnam to China, make sure you have all your VISA documents on hand. Otherwise, you could come nose to beak with some of the most vicious immigration officers out there!
Because dotted along China’s border with Vietnam, a gaggle of 500 geese stand guard, ready to honk, bite or fly at anyone who dares try to cross the border illegally. These guard geese patrol 300 miles along China’s Chongzuo Prefecture, as part of China’s zero-COVID policy aimed at preventing anyone from entering China with the virus.
And these domestic geese require no combat training, they simply need their nest boxes set up in the area they’re required to protect. Geese are insanely territorial! Once they’ve established somewhere is their turf, they’ll defend it to the last feather!
Weighing up to 11-pounds each, these birds will hiss and bite, flying up and attacking intruders from the air if they have to! As bad as U.S customs can be, they have nothing on these fowl-tempered geese!
But as mean as geese can be, they don’t have the muscle power needed to fight off intruders, dogs are better suited for that. And so, these Chinese guard geese are supported by 400 mixed-breed guard dogs who accompany the border police on patrol.
Instead of attacking intruders, the main benefit of the guard geese is to act as an early warning system, honking to raise the alarm, encouraging the rest of the flock to also start honking!
Trying to sneak past a goose usually doesn’t end well, because they have 360-degree vision with their eyes positioned on either side of their heads. And not only that, but they can also see in ultra-violet light!
That’s because, while human eye’s only have three kinds of light receptor cone cells that can detect red, green, and blue colored light, geese have four kinds of cone cells! And that extra cone cell is specially adapted to pick up ultraviolet light.
In addition, geese have a tiny drop of colored oil in their cone cells that humans lack. This drop of oil acts similarly to the filter on a camera lens, making colors more vivid, and boosting contrast, so geese can see in super sharp detail!
And these Chinese guard geese have already spotted things missed by the dogs and police on patrol. Like back in December 2021, a goose honked the alarm on two people illegally crossing the border!
While this has only been recently implemented along the border, guard geese are hardly a new idea! In fact, they’ve been used to help defend properties as far back in time as ancient Rome!
Amazingly, geese are credited as saving Rome from the invasion of the Celtic Gaul’s in 390 BC, over 2410 years ago! The Gaul soldiers managed to sneak past the snoring sentries and the guard dogs, but they couldn’t evade the night watch of the geese!
Are geese just really light sleepers? Sort of. most species sleep with one eye open, because they can only allow one half of their brain to sleep at a time!
This is called unihemispheric slow-wave sleep and is an evolutionary trait that’s developed in the geese to protect them from predators. So, at night, one half of a goose’s brain is dreaming, while the other half is fully awake and on the look-out!
The night-watch capabilities of geese is so well-known that they’re used all over the world. For example, they were part of the security detail charged with protecting $376 million worth of whisky in Dumbuck, Scotland!
Between 1959 and 2012, over 100 large Chinese White Geese patrolled 14 acres of land and warded off any potential whiskey thieves. Though in 2012, the guard geese were replaced by CCTV as a cheaper option, as the geese themselves cost a lot in basic upkeep.
Nevertheless, there was never a barrel of whiskey stolen while the Waddling Scotch Watch were on patrol!
So good luck ever trying to hide from a goose! To quote Liam Geeson (or Neeson) from Taken: they have a very particular set of skills, skills they have acquired over a very long career, skills that make them a nightmare for people like you. They will look for you, they will find you, and they will honk at you.
The invention of radar in WWII was a gamechanger that helped turn the war effort in the allies’ favor. Today, the ability to detect objects using radio waves is still used in a lot of tech, everything from airport traffic control to weather reporting!
But have you ever wondered what came before radar? The answer to that is a whole lot weirder than you can imagine!
During WWII, the U.S Navy was in serious need of a small, compact missile guidance system. Missile technology had already been invented by the Germans early on in the war, putting the U.S at a huge disadvantage.
Their guidance systems of the time were far too clunky and large to be attached to any weaponry, so the U.S Navy was scrambling for a solution. That’s when Professor Burrhus Skinner came up with a unique idea. He suggested using pigeons to guide the missiles!
Well, the National Defense Research Committee described the plan as “very eccentric and impractical”. But they were desperate for ideas, so they committed a whopping $25,000 to the research. Adjusted for inflation, that’s around $418,000 in today’s money!
Despite the doubters, Professor Skinner had a clever egg-splanation for this mad idea. Pigeons have amazing eyesight! While humans have 200,000 photoreceptors per square millimeter of their retina, pigeons have an unbelievable 400,000 photoreceptors!
As a result, they can see in 5 independent channels of color, including ultra-violet light! Humans, on the other wing, can only perceive three independent channels of color: blue, green and red. And with their wide-set eyes, pigeons can see 340 degrees around! These birds don’t miss a beat.
So, with their excellent eyesight in mind, Professor Skinner proposed that pigeons could be trained to act as missile target guidance systems.
The project was code-named Project Pigeon. But even with that name, it’s unlikely the Germans would have guessed the US was working on something as whacky as pigeon-guided missiles!
So, how did it work? Well, one to three pigeons were placed in an unpowered airframe, essentially a small glider with wings, which possessed an explosive warhead section in the middle and a guidance device in the nose cone.
Inside the nose cone, three mounted lenses projected an image of the target on a screen which the pigeons were trained to peck towards by being rewarded with grain. The screen was mounted on pivots with sensors that measured any angular movement.
So, if the bomb started to move off track, the target’s image would move to the edge of the screen and the pigeons would follow the image, pecking towards its new location.
This would move the screen on its pivots, the sensors, detecting the altered angle of the screen, would then signal to the control surfaces to steer the bomb in the direction the screen had moved, directing the bomb back on to its target path.
In this way, the pigeons would pilot the bomb to its target detonation, disappearing in a ball of flame. Hopefully, they were rewarded by showers of grain in pigeon heaven!
Despite sounding utterly ridiculous, test runs of Project Pigeon were successful! The pigeons were skilled pilots and pecked at targets reliably, holding the course steady even when they were plummeting towards the earth.
They were undaunted by the terrifying sounds of war, motivated solely by their pursuit of grain. I’m not sure I could ever be so motivated, even if I was promised a lifetime of free chips!
However, despite successful test runs, the project was pigeon-holed after radar was invented, as the U.S Navy diverted all funds to the development of radar systems. While plenty of people, including Professor Skinner, were disappointed that Project Pigeon was put on the backburner, there were plenty of pigeons letting out coos of relief that day!
If you’re ever lost at sea, bobbing along, desperately hoping to be spotted by a coastguard - don’t panic because help will almost always arrive quickly! But you might be surprised who your rescuer turns out to be! And you may need to forgive them if they leave a poop on your shoulder!
Back in the 1970’s and 80’s, the US coast guard used pigeons to help search for people lost in the ocean! Not by attaching pieces of bread to people’s life jackets, rather by specially training the pigeons to search for orange flotation devices.
The pigeons were trained by being placed in chambers with special “peck keys” that released food when pressed. Once the pigeons got the hang of the keys, their training boxes were faced towards Kaneohe Bay in Hawaii, where a buoy with a radio-operated orange plate floated.
Trainers would expose the orange plate and then reward the pigeons with grain when they hit the keys. So, the pigeons learned to associate getting grain with spotting the orange plate.
This is called classical conditioning, the same concept behind the famous Pavlov’s dogs experiment. This is where dogs were trained to associate food with the sound of a bell, and in turn would salivate when they heard a bell even if there was no food present.
To train the pigeons to look further out to sea, the buoy was moved further away until it was eventually nothing more than an orange speck in the ocean. Though that may be impossible for humans to spot, the pigeons found it easy, and they kept tapping away at the keys every time they saw the orange dot.
Once the pigeons passed basic training, they were placed in chambers mounted beneath a helicopter and had to find orange, yellow, and red floats in the ocean. Each bird covered a 120-degree window, so a pod with three pigeons could scan a full 360-degree view of the ocean.
The pigeons spotted targets on the first flyover 90% of the time! Their human counterparts, however, only spotted targets on the first flyover 38% of the time! But, when the humans knew they were competing against pigeons they doubled their efforts, and spotted targets 50% of the time on their first flyover.
It must be pretty embarrassing to discover a pigeon is better at your job than you are! But despite the crewmembers’ best efforts, the pigeons still had them beat! When both humans and pigeons were searching, pigeons spotted the orange dot first 84% of the time! When it comes to a game of eye spy, it turns out nobody can beat a pigeon!
Though there were some drawbacks to the use of pigeons, because they were solely food-motivated. With that being the case, their weight had to be carefully managed in order to ensure they were interested enough to search for orange floats.
Pigeons at 80% of their “free food” weight were generally hungry enough to search the ocean for hours without losing focus. Dropping below that weight threatened the pigeons’ health, but going above that weight meant the pigeons were too full and lost their desire for grain.
There were also various costs for housing and training the pigeons, so despite the original success of the program, federal budget cuts resulted in the program being shut down. Meanwhile, advances in technology have made the use of pigeons completely redundant.
Planes are now equipped with high-powered magnets, which are far better at locating scattered plane debris than pigeons ever were. And improved homing beacons for shipwrecks mean computers can scan miles of ocean to locate survivors, rather than having to rely on spotters flying overhead.
Although, when it comes to searching for lost orange rafts in the open ocean, there’s still nothing with quite as much feathery charm as a pigeon!