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Pigeon Search and Rescue Project (PROJECT SEA HUNT)

During the 1940s pigeons in a Tufts University laboratory had proven the exceptional ability to pick out certain shapes and colors in exchange for food. In the late 1970s and early 1980s the US Coast Guard decided the same abilities could be useful while searching for men and equipment in open water. Navy scientist Jim Simmons, PhD, used conditioning to train pigeons to conduct search and rescue from Coast Guard helicopters. 

These experiments, called PROJECT SEA HUNT, used three pigeons a small observation bubble on the underside of a helicopter. The birds faced 120 degrees from each other so that they covered the entire 360 degrees under the aircraft. The pigeons were trained to recognize objects floating in the water and communicate with the helicopter pilots by pecking a key that would help guide the pilots to the targets. The pigeons were 93 percent accurate at locating objects floating at sea and their false positive rates were extremely low. Human flight crews were accurate 38 percent of the time. When combined with human searchers, the pigeons' success rate was nearly perfect. Also, unlike humans, the pigeons did not get bored as Simmons had trained them to respond even when there were hours between sightings. Eventually, the Coast Guard recognized the value of Simmons' pigeons and called this project "the best daylight search system" yet developed. 

The project, however, was plagued by problems as two helicopters crashed either destroying or damaging the pigeon system. The project, unfortunately, never got out of the testing phase and was ended in 1983 due to federal budget cuts. Though innovative in theory, the project ultimately proved impractical. In the end the birds never did get a chance to save any lives.

Further Information:

Photographs:

Official Coast Guard Imagery (click on thumbnail for High resolution image) Caption/ Historical Information
Photo of the complete apparatus outside the helicopter The complete apparatus outside the helicopter
Photo of a crewman handled the secured pigeon Crewman handling the secured pigeon
Photo of a crewman working on the observation bubble Crewman works on the observation bubble
Photo indicating how the birds were individually secured View showing how each pigeon was secured
Photo of one of the helicopters involved in the testing One of the helicopters involved in the testing
Photo of one of the testing flight crews One of the testing flight crews
Photo of the instrument pecked by the pigeon to communicate with the crew The instrument pecked by the pigeon to communicate with the crew
Photo of the tested observation cupola View of the tested observation cupola
Photo of the compartmentalized observation cupola View of the compartmentalized observation cupola
Photo of Project Sea Hunt poster Project Sea Hunt poster
Photo of Project Sea Hunt cartoon Project Sea Hunt cartoon
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Last Modified 11/17/2014