In the 1970s, the C.I.A.’s Bird Camera Program Spied on the Soviets

Declassified is an original Phoblographer series that digs deep into historical documents to examine how the government used photography.

The C.I.A. is no stranger to working with animals. And for a time, the common pigeon was a clandestine photographer in the name of Uncle Sam. In the mid-1970s, the C.I.A. describes what’s called the Bird Camera Program. Tests were done all around the United States to send our feathered friends into the Soviet Union. There, the undercover pigeons would fly from point A to point B. Along the way, a camera would photograph whatever was below on the ground. A modified Minox camera was developed to do that. Minox was a company that was well known for their spy cameras and using the 110 film format to get essential photos. 110 film is around the size of a modern Four Thirds sensor. Many years before Olympus and Panasonic developed its spiritual successor, the C.I.A. was putting it to use for spying.

The Bird Camera Program was very exacting. It evolved partially from a program that trained birds to fly a distance up to 25 miles over water. Many tests were done to figure out how to get the most satisfactory results. Two different cameras were created for the tests. Both had what the C.I.A. described as lenses with low-apertures. Modifications were made to increase the film size from 9mm to 16mm in width. This gave the C.I.A. a better chance at photographing potential targets. The camera shot one photo per second for three minutes–resulting in 180 pictures. Lots of tests were done involving resolution charts, the film cassettes, fresh batteries, and even figuring out what shutter speed should be used. There was a lot of trial and error. But the testing and implementation of the program seemed to have progressed pretty quickly for the time.

“A flashing red laser beam was used to mark the target, and a special lamp would draw the bird back,” says a B.B.C. article. “On one occasion in Europe, the C.I.A. secretly delivered an eavesdropping device by bird to a window (although no audio was picked up from the intended target).”

It was the third and final camera that really mattered. Declassified C.I.A. documents on the Bird Camera Program describe finding ways to compensate for vibrations. Of course, a bird flying in motion and sometimes against the wind is going to vibrate the camera. The final camera weighed 35 grams, including the film, batteries, and timer. With the harness, it weighed just under 40 grams. But the most innovative feature was the focal plane flattener. This did a few things, including making the motor work better. The final camera accommodated 200 black and white pictures or 140 color photos. As always, the C.I.A. worked with Kodak to create the film. It shot photos at 1/1400th with a lens that had a maximum aperture of f2.5. Just think, a bird can somehow or another stabilize a camera mid-air at 100 feet above sea level and against air currents. But most people probably can’t! In fact, the weather was also a massive factor in all this.

Training the birds to fly with cameras was a whole other part of the operation. The C.I.A. details training the birds to stay in light-sealed containers. The birds needed to be deployed in one of three ways. The first is that the pigeons were launched from the side window of a car driving 50 miles an hour. The second involved flying out of a backpack of a skier. And the third scenario is flying out of a picnic basket. If that wasn’t specific enough, the C.I.A. needed to know if two birds could fly out of the same container. Four different species were used. The birds needed to be reconditioned if they took a two or three-week break, but they never lost the skills they were taught. Eventually, they taught falcons to do the same thing. The details of these missions are still classified.

Lead image by the Open Knowledge Foundation Deutschland and used with Creative Commons permission.