The Real Experts in Espionage Have Wings and Feathers

U.S. citizens, foreign powers, the German chancellor’s own cell phone: the extent of surveillance by the National Security Agency has proved to be vast as well as embarrassing. But there is one creature able to elude the eye of the N.S.A. and, through centuries, many others, including Nazi forces: the homing pigeon.

To make this point in a quite memorable way, New York City artist Duke Riley trained 50 birds, half to smuggle Cuban cigars from Havana, Cuba to Key West, Florida (and named after famous smugglers like Memphis’ Minnie Burr, who transported supplies beneath her skirts during the Civil War) and the other half to document the process via tiny custom-made cameras (and named after film makers who’ve had trouble with the law, like Roman Polanski). The name of Riley’s piece? “Trading With the Enemy,” a fitting enough name for a project showcasing pigeons’ abilities to bypass (flypass?) U.S. authorities.

Training so many pigeons to fly 100 miles and smuggle contraband is certainly a Herculean task. Riley is up to it: his previous projects include (in 2007) nearing the Red Hook-berthed Queen Mary II cruise liner in a makeshift wooden Revolutionary War-era submarine; for this, he was arrested by the U.S. Coast Guard. In 2009, he made his way to Cleveland, Ohio by hopping freight trains and then “infiltrated the city’s sewer system to emulate the hobo lifestyle of migrant workers during Cleveland’s Depression-era.”

The wooden submarine project was intended to make a statement about the Bush administration’s “war on terror” and also the gentrification of the Brooklyn waterfront. “A lot of the work I do seeks to create some sense of possibility or empowerment, in a humorous and romanticized way, using the simplest means possible,” as Riley says to Reuters.

Training a couple dozen pigeons may not strike a lot of people as “the simplest means” to question American surveillance. Aware of the birds’ intelligence, humans have been training pigeons for centuries to deliver messages; a German apothecary, Julius Neubronner, first conceived of putting a mini-camera around a pigeon’s neck to take aerial photos. The remains of a World War II carrier pigeon still carrying an encrypted message were found last year in a chimney and efforts were made around the world to crack the code (a Canadian man says he has solved it; many beg to differ).

Pigeons were routinely used to convey messages between coastal authorities in Florida and Cuba in the early twentieth century. Drones ignore the birds. As Riley explains to the New York Times, “I wanted to subvert this billions-of-dollars high-tech system with things that were being used in ancient Sumeria.”

Riley orchestrated the training and journey of the pigeons to protest the U.S.’s 51-year-old trade embargo with Cuba. Americans with permission to travel to Cuba were at one point allowed to carry back $100 worth of goods, but the Bush administration imposed a total ban in 2004.

Riley ended up sending off 23 of the birds he and his assistants trained. A pigeon can make the journey in about five hours; some of Riley’s took two weeks (and some, including Minnie, did not return at all; they may still be alive, according to Riley). 11 flew back, with 6 Cohiba cigars that have now been cast in resin. One bird, D. Ruggero Deodato, is said to have “nose-dived into Havana harbor under uncertain circumstances” — Cuban authorities would certainly have reason to wonder about pigeons with cameras appearing from the direction of the United States.

The video footage the pigeons filmed includes one’s encounter on a boat in which a woman asks if the bird is wearing a bomb, to the strains of Jimmy Buffett.

Having done their duty, some of the pigeons will be living in a bird loft at the Magnan Metz Gallery, with portraits of each of the 50 birds painted on tin shingles adorning the walls. Some of the pigeons (they mate for life and can breed in artificial light and heat) are already breeding, leading Riley to speculate about training them for another cigar-smuggling journey.

At the very least, Riley has succeeded on giving U.S. authorities a quandary:

The Treasury Department, which oversees the trade embargo with Cuba, was … flummoxed. “Oooookkkkkay,” a spokeswoman responded, when told about the project by a reporter. In a statement, she added that importing or dealing in Cuban goods is generally prohibited for “persons subject to the jurisdiction of the United States.”

But is a pigeon a “person” subject to such?

Riley’s has been a long experience with pigeons. He lived with them in a cheap attic loft while a student at the Rhode Island School of Design. He’d become fascinated with pigeons after rescuing one while a boy. As he says, “I let it go and it came back. You feel sort of connected to the animal after that” — and much more aware of all they can do, versus us humans who have to rely on electronics and software for acts of espionage that we’re not always so good at keeping under cover.

Photo from Thinkstock


Jim Ven
Jim Ven2 years ago

thanks for the article.

Carrie-Anne Brown

thanks for sharing :)

Sherry Bailey
Sherry Bailey3 years ago

This is gut wrenching...

More than a million homing pigeons die every year during Taiwan's seasonal pigeon races, grueling sets of seven races over open ocean from ever-increasing distances. Young birds—not even a year old—are shipped out to sea, released in the middle of the ocean and forced to fly back home even in the midst of typhoon-strength winds. Most often, less than 1 percent of these highly intelligent birds complete each seven-race series; many drown from exhaustion, perish in the storms, or are killed afterward for being too slow. E-Mail&utm_medium=E-News

Sherry Bailey
Sherry Bailey3 years ago

Sooo Love This Article! Finally a round of praise for pigeons!

Grace Adams
Grace Adams4 years ago

Pigeons are smarter than our human espionage agencies.

Lisbeth Alvarado Sanchez

Pigeons are very intelligent birds.

Denial W.
Past Member 4 years ago

Thank you for sharing

Nils Anders Lunde
PlsNoMessage se4 years ago


Karen Chestney
Karen Chestney4 years ago

OK...then.... yes....pigeons ...are cool.....Thanks for the article.

Michael H.
Mike H4 years ago

Birds are amazing animals