On Saturday morning, police in Afghanistan killed a suspicious-looking bird chilling by the side of the road. The bird freaked them out because it was wearing an antenna. Further inspection of the dead bird's body found it was also wearing a GPS and a camera.
Since this northern Afghan region faces considerable Taliban violence, the police thought the bird was a bomb—not a far-fetched theory, given humanity's long history of weaponizing animals. Just last summer, the militant Palestinian organization Hamas loaded a donkey with explosives and pushed it toward the Israeli army.
This bird as a Taliban-trained bomb, though? Incredibly unlikely. On the bird's foot in the local footage linked to by NBC, you can see it wears a tag stating it is a research subject for the Emirates Center for Conservation of Houbara (ECCH) in Uzbekistan, just across the border.
The houbara is a North African and Middle Eastern medium-sized bird that was once a staple of Arab falconry. Now, its dwindling global population is low enough to be listed as "vulnerable," a status just above "endangered." The Afghan police were right about one thing; this bird isn't common in the area.
Yves Hingrat, the scientist who manages the ECCH, did not immediately respond to a request for comment. Besides managing Uzbekistan's houbara conservation effort, he also manages houbara breeding programs in Morocco, Abu Dhab, and in Kazakhstan.
Last year, Sudanese officials caught an endangered vulture outfitted with a camera and GPS, thinking it was a spy for Israel. While this bird bomb is probably a repeat of that, using animals as bombers is a real thing.
In addition to using pigeons to relay messages from the 6th century all the way up until World War II, the US also developed pigeon-guided missiles in the 1940s. There was a similar program with bats. Around the same time, UK officials considered using pigeons as bombers or to wage bio-chemical warfare.
The earliest known animal that was used as an incendiary device was the wild pig
The Soviets were more interested in canines than birds. They trained anti-tank dogs, also known as "dog-mines," to run under tanks wearing explosives that would trigger when the wooden lever the dog was wearing scraped the bottom of the tank. The Soviets deployed 40,000 dogs in their fight against Germany in WWII, but as a whole their dog units proved mostly ineffective for various reasons, including that the bomber dogs would run under Soviet tanks (as that was what they were trained with) and blow those up instead of German tanks.
The earliest known animal that was used as an incendiary device was the wild pig, used in around 240 BC by the Romans. The pig would be covered in tar, lit on fire, and sent to run into enemy combat lines. The first noted incident of using explosives on animals happened during the Civil War when the Confederates put gunpowder on mules, a plan that backfired. The first horse-in-cart bomb exploded in 1920, outside JP Morgan Chase's headquarters in New York City.
Most countries have stopped training animals to kill. Today, animals used for military purposes are more likely to be trained for defense and mine detection. The Middle East is currently the only region to continue using animals as bombs, preferring donkeys over dogs. Besides the Hamas incident, an exploding donkey killed a policeman in Afghanistan last year and injured three people. Iran purchased Russia's kamikaze mine-wearing military dolphins in 2000, but doesn't seem to have a plan for them.
War is hell.