Do you think anyone back in the day ever spoofed a pigeon?
Okay, so the way sending messages via pigeon works is that each pigeon is “homed” to a particular roost, typically some sort of tower. If you want to send messages to someone, you get them to send you a wagon full of caged pigeons from their roost; later, when you attach messages to those pigeons and release them, they’ll find their way back home.
So picture this: you’re a nefarious sort who wants to intercept messages between roosts A and B, but for whatever reason you don’t have on-site access to either roost – too much security, or lack of personnel, perhaps. So what you do is establish your own roost C, raise a bunch of pigeons, then waylay the regular shipments of caged birds between A and B, steal their pigeons, and replace them with your own pigeons. And here’s the important bit: you keep the stolen pigeons.
Now, whenever someone tries to send a message from A to B, or vice versa, they’ll unwittingly be using a pigeon that’s homed to your roost C instead. The message comes to you, you read it, then you re-attach it to a stolen pigeon homed to the message’s actual destination and send it on its way.
Hello yes it’s time for more Wacky WWII Hijinks!
Let me tell you about a man called Flight Lieutenant Richard Walker. Dude liked pigeons. Like, a lot. And he had very similar ideas about the nefarious purposes pigeons could be put towards, namely that pigeons would be an “undetectable method of sending information to occupied Europe” for any spies in Britain. If you’ve read my other posts, you’ll know that there WEREN’T any German spies in Britain that hadn’t been almost immediately intercepted, but that’s neither here nor there.
Walker suggested that British agents carry “a knapsack of pigeons rather than a wireless”, because if there’s anything less suspicious than an stranger with an unusually bulky briefcase, it’s one with a bag that won’t stop cooing. He was also full of great ideas about how to hide messages on the pigeons themselves, including “Morse code written on the quills in waterproof ink”. This guy rules and I love him.
To combat enemy pigeons entering Britain, Walker created a falconry unit, which is exactly what it sounds like. Dude enlisted a couple falconers and their falcons to just straight up eat the enemy agents. The falconry unit “would eventually bring down a total of twenty three pigeons, every one of which turned out to be British”. A for effort, Lt. Walker.
Walker’s next Pigeon Plan was even more ambitious: given homing pigeons’ extremely social nature, birds would sometimes depart from their little pigeon missions to hang with other pigeons. How many times can I say the word pigeons in this post. Anyway, to exploit that fact, Walker carried out “the largest military deployment of pigeons ever attempted”, in which all the pigeon fanciers near the coast were organized to release their birds at set, staggered times to form a screen of birds that would, in theory, envelop any enemy birds and convince them to hang out instead of delivering their messages. Unfortunately, “it had no effect whatsoever for the simple reason that the Germans had never attempted to use pigeons to send messages FROM Britain”. Again, points for style.
Walker then went on to come up with the “double-cross pigeon racket”, a plan to make the Germans believe that “British spy pigeons had infiltrated their lofts”, and thereby “throw suspicion on the entire German pigeon service”. This plan depended, like the OP’s idea, on the fact that pigeons return to roosts when possible. A lost pigeon would find its way to whatever loft it could find. Therefore, Walker proposed, the British could take some of their “second-rate” birds, replace their British leg bands (that identified each bird) with counterfeit German bands, and drop the birds into enemy territory. In theory, the Germans would see the bands, notice the numbers/colors/info didn’t match their records, and be forced to recall all their pigeons to check for imposters, thereby crippling the pigeon service.
Walker created and released 350 fake German pigeons. Unfortunately, as you may have already guessed from the previous anecdotes, “there is no evidence that it had any effect whatsoever. The Germans never detected the double agent pigeons in their midst….the double agent pigeons, too feeble to fly home, simply blended in with the local pigeon populations and, like so many ex-combatants, made new lives for themselves”.
So, in conclusion, pigeon shenanigans are totally possible. Are they worth it? Ehhhhhhhh.
All the quotes and info in this post comes from Ben Macintyre’s book Double Cross: The True Story of the D-Day Spies. It’s very good and you should read it.