Ocean Watch

By Susan Scott

Friday, June 22, 2001

Pigeons can help with
searches at sea

Here's a question most of us have never considered before: If you were adrift in the ocean with only a lifejacket, and a helicopter search-and-rescue team was looking for you, what kind of birds would you want riding in the helicopter aiding in the search?

Parrots because they're intelligent? Raptors because of their superior vision? Or how about seabirds, since they make their living searching the ocean for food?

If you really want to be rescued, your answer should be pigeons. Yes, those cooing, guano-dropping, often annoying birds make excellent search and rescue teams.

I learned this from pigeon keeper Alvin Wong who e-mailed me an article about a 1977 joint Coast Guard and Navy study called Project Sea Hunt. The project was born of an idea that trained pigeons might improve marine search efforts. Most of the trials were conducted in waters off Oahu and the Kona coast of the Big Island.

Pigeons were chosen for this research for several reasons. These birds adapt quickly to different surroundings, are easy to train and live for more than 10 years.

Besides these attributes, pigeons have excellent vision. They can see far better than humans and can also concentrate on a visual task for many hours.

This is useful because helicopter crews often must search vast expanses of ocean for long periods of time. Sun glare, the chores of flying and navigating the helicopter plus loss of concentration over time are all factors that make objects on the surface difficult for rescuers to see.

Pigeons do much better. In 89 trials, the pigeons spotted an international orange float about the size of a man wearing a life jacket 90 percent of the time. Humans saw the same target only 38 percent of the time. In addition, since the pigeons spotted the float earlier than the people, the birds gave the crew directional hints. Without the pigeons' assistance, the people would have done even worse.

So how do you get a pigeon to tell you where to look? On the bottom of the helicopter researchers built a round, clear chamber divided into three compartments. Each compartment contained a trained bird, a peck key and a feeding mechanism. When the birds saw something orange, they pecked on the key and got a treat. Inside the helicopter, panel lights flashed and the bird trainer gave compass points to the pilot.

While the study was still ongoing, workers decided to use the trained pigeons in a search for five people missing at sea. Unfortunately, the helicopter lost power, and the pilot had to make an emergency water landing off the Kona coast. The crew was uninjured, but the three pigeons were killed and their observation chamber destroyed.

More pigeons were trained and more bubble containers were built. But even with its high rate of success, Project Sea Hunt was scrapped in 1983.

Officials felt that the pigeons' usefulness was limited, they lacked flexibility and it cost too much to train both birds and people.

Alvin Wong believes the program would be less expensive today because trainers could use flight simulators to train the birds rather than taking them up in real helicopters. Currently, he is considering petitioning officials to resurrect the project because he knows pigeons can save lives.

Parrots are pretty, hawks can hunt and seabirds have stamina. But if you're adrift in a life raft, and have lost all hope of rescue, look to the sky and pray for pigeons.

Marine science writer Susan Scott's Ocean Watch column
appears weekly in the Star-Bulletin. Contact her at

E-mail to City Desk

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