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The British Military Still Uses Carrier Pigeons
November 2, 2012 5:38 AM   Subscribe

The British Military Still Uses Carrier Pigeons. Not really. But the skeletal remains of a WWII carrier pigeon were recently found in a chimney, with a coded message still attached to its leg.
posted by COD (56 comments total) 9 users marked this as a favorite

 
oh oh..i get to do it... DRINK MORE OVALTINE


But seriously...that is awesome story. It will be interesting to see if a) they can even decode it and b) if what it says would have made any sort of impact one way or another
posted by ShawnString at 5:46 AM on November 2, 2012 [4 favorites]


So, I'm thinking this is an ARG by reading the front page's "not really," but then I click through and see the title.
posted by leotrotsky at 5:47 AM on November 2, 2012


Something something Twitter outage.
posted by phaedon at 5:47 AM on November 2, 2012 [1 favorite]


What a great story; I can't wait to hear what it says (I am pretty sure it will be easier to decipher than modern computer driven ciphers).
posted by TedW at 5:49 AM on November 2, 2012


Code-crackers are now frantically trying to decipher the message, which never reached its intended recipient


In my mind's eye I see a huge complex of dedicated intelligence professionals who have had all other orders rescinded and are running about with shirt-tails a-flying to decipher this crucial message which could shatter our understanding of Britain's role in the war.

Sorry, I mean it is probably an intern sent into the basement archives to pull down a dusty code book that has not been opened in sixty years. The intern will then spend fourteen minutes carefully running a dusty finger down columns on the yellowing pages and discover that this was a request for more powdered egg in the February 1942 resupply run.

Daily Mail, never change.
posted by ricochet biscuit at 5:49 AM on November 2, 2012 [5 favorites]


Can't muster snark, this is pretty cool.
posted by sfts2 at 5:50 AM on November 2, 2012 [4 favorites]


with a coded message still attached to its leg.
posted by COD (5 comments total) [add to favorites] [!]


Eponysterical.
posted by chavenet at 5:51 AM on November 2, 2012 [2 favorites]


Experts have now decoded it. It said: Help. I'm stuck down a chimney. Bring help immediately. If I don't make it, tell Squabby I love her.
posted by MuffinMan at 5:52 AM on November 2, 2012 [14 favorites]


The British Military Still Uses Carrier Pigeons...Not really.

Not even for IPoAC? I understand the throughput is phenomenal, even if there are some latency issues.
posted by TedW at 5:53 AM on November 2, 2012


ricochet biscuit: discover that this was a request for more powdered egg in the February 1942 resupply run

Powdered egg! In February of '42!
posted by Rock Steady at 5:59 AM on November 2, 2012


Pidgin
posted by Mblue at 6:00 AM on November 2, 2012


(I am pretty sure it will be easier to decipher than modern computer driven ciphers)

It might be harder than you think. There are thousands of different schemes out there, and if a good one is used, it's hard to know which one. To begin solving it, one needs to know what kind of coding schemes were used by that branch of the military at that point in time.

But, due to the presence of the number at the end, I bet this is created with an one-time pad, so it's basically unsolvable unless GCHQ has the original pads somewhere in their archive.
posted by ymgve at 6:00 AM on November 2, 2012 [5 favorites]


Can I just ask everybody in the UK to please look in their chimney right now? You guys have awesome crap up in there and I want to see it all today.
posted by stupidsexyFlanders at 6:07 AM on November 2, 2012 [1 favorite]


In the earliest attempts at IP over Avian Carriers, they had some issues with packet loss.
posted by Malor at 6:16 AM on November 2, 2012 [8 favorites]


(set the program back fifty years!)
posted by Malor at 6:17 AM on November 2, 2012


"Somme assault bad idea, invite Jerry to football match instead"
posted by BeeDo at 6:19 AM on November 2, 2012


Just came in to check how long it took for the Drink More Ovaltine joke. Not disappointed.
posted by dances_with_sneetches at 6:25 AM on November 2, 2012 [1 favorite]


I've decoded the message. It says, "We require a shubbery."
posted by COD at 6:26 AM on November 2, 2012 [4 favorites]


But, due to the presence of the number at the end, I bet this is created with an one-time pad, so it's basically unsolvable unless GCHQ has the original pads somewhere in their archive.

The 27 is the number of groups. 1525/6 looks like a time/day-of-month string, and matches up with the 1522 time of origin on the form.

The two groups below -- NURP 40 TW 194 NUPR 37 DK 76 look like coded map coordinates.

Finally, note that two copies were sent. It's probable that this message did go through, just not this copy.

I could easily see this message encrypted mechanically, and then sent via pigeon as a backup to radio transmission.
posted by eriko at 6:29 AM on November 2, 2012 [1 favorite]


I just want to hear the excuse of whoever was supposed to be maintaining this chimney.
posted by Faint of Butt at 6:29 AM on November 2, 2012 [4 favorites]


BURN IT, BURN IT NOW.
posted by three blind mice at 6:33 AM on November 2, 2012 [3 favorites]


Those 27 characters are part of a much longer message. They say: '<!DOCTYPE html PUBLIC "-//W'. Researchers are looking for approximately 800 more pigeon skeletons.
posted by rh at 6:41 AM on November 2, 2012 [7 favorites]


I would assume that packet's TTL has long expired.
posted by RobotVoodooPower at 6:47 AM on November 2, 2012 [1 favorite]


Some 250,000 pigeons were deployed in the Second World War. Able to fly at a mile a minute, they carried messages from behind enemy lines and, like a forerunner of the ‘black box’, accompanied RAF bomber crews in case they crashed.

Even for the DM this is preposterous copy. In what possible way is a carrier pigeon like a forerunner to the blackbox?:

*Plane falls out of the sky*
Petey the Pigeon is found near the wreckage
'What happened Petey?
'Coo, cooo, cooo, coo'
'Gunfire you say?
'Cooooo'
'Well done S'ah'

As for the message in the red capsule - surely it is SEND MORE TEA
posted by numberstation at 6:57 AM on November 2, 2012 [5 favorites]


numberstation: In what possible way is a carrier pigeon like a forerunner to the blackbox?

If you see the pigeon, you can shut off the lights on the runway. I could also envision a simple system for quickly adding/removing generic messages like "mission accomplished" or "aborted mission" or whatever.
posted by Rock Steady at 7:11 AM on November 2, 2012


CNFD: AH 1 BLLK ONLY.
posted by biffa at 7:12 AM on November 2, 2012 [1 favorite]


In my mind's eye I see a huge complex of dedicated intelligence professionals who have had all other orders rescinded and are running about with shirt-tails a-flying to decipher this crucial message which could shatter our understanding of Britain's role in the war.

And then someone, somewhere amid the explosion of open books and tossed about papers quizzically reads out loud the decrypted message:

"HELLO SWEETIE"

The entire cadre of dedicated code breakers sits momentarily in stunned, anticlimactic silence not noticing the gentleman who's been quietly standing in the corner of the room the whole time slip out the door....
posted by RonButNotStupid at 7:19 AM on November 2, 2012 [9 favorites]


Code-crackers are now frantically trying to decipher the message, which never reached its intended recipient

COPIES SENT: 2
posted by JoeZydeco at 7:25 AM on November 2, 2012


I love everything about this story. I love that it appears they had tiny carrier pigeon accessories and miniature memo forms. I love that Blechley Park is some sort of stately home and not some sort of non-descriptor cinder-block nightmare in the suburbs. I love the fact they used redundant pigeons, the memo form clearly says 2 copies sent. I love the fact that old guy has some sort of velvet lined display case, not like a dipsy-doodle bag or shoe box. I love the fact that they are at all hands, frantically trying to decode this, drinking pot after pot of murderously strong tea despite the fact that the other pigeon probably got through.
posted by Ad hominem at 7:30 AM on November 2, 2012 [2 favorites]


Code-crackers are now frantically trying to decipher the message, which never reached its intended recipient

Attn: Sally Sparrow. Don't blink. Blink and you're dead. They are fast. Faster than you can believe. Don't turn your back. Don't look away. And don't blink. Good Luck.
posted by Celsius1414 at 7:35 AM on November 2, 2012 [3 favorites]


Message reads: "Dastardly and Muttley out to stop pigeon. Keep all pigeons away from potential death trap chimneys".
posted by panboi at 7:45 AM on November 2, 2012 [2 favorites]


Nice to see they spared a mention in the article for the Dickin Medal, the award for animal bravery in warfare created in 1943. Full list of pigeons that have won the medal can be found here.
posted by garius at 7:52 AM on November 2, 2012


I've decoded the message. It says, "We require a shubbery."

I get, "Bally Jerry pranged his kite right in the how's your father. Hairy blighter, dicky-birdied, feathered back on his Sammy, took a waspy, flipped over on his Betty Harper's and caught his can in the Bertie."
posted by ricochet biscuit at 8:00 AM on November 2, 2012 [11 favorites]


ATTENTION PIGEONS: This is what happens to deserters.
posted by Slarty Bartfast at 8:36 AM on November 2, 2012 [2 favorites]


Oh now I really want to rewatch Valiant.
posted by jetlagaddict at 9:16 AM on November 2, 2012


I've decoded the message. It says, "We require a shubbery."

I get, "Bally Jerry pranged his kite right in the how's your father. Hairy blighter, dicky-birdied, feathered back on his Sammy, took a waspy, flipped over on his Betty Harper's and caught his can in the Bertie."


Six of one, half dozen of the other.
posted by grubi at 9:22 AM on November 2, 2012


I get: "20 POUNDS, SAME AS IN TOWN"
posted by grubi at 9:22 AM on November 2, 2012 [2 favorites]


In my mind's eye I see a huge complex of dedicated intelligence professionals who have had all other orders rescinded and are running about with shirt-tails a-flying to decipher this crucial message which could shatter our understanding of Britain's role in the war.

"47°9′S 126°43′W 47.15°S 126.717°W"
posted by Durn Bronzefist at 9:43 AM on November 2, 2012


Don't scoff at the pigeons, they are heroes. Read the story of Cher Ami, the carrier pigeon that helped save the Lost Battalion.
posted by charlie don't surf at 9:55 AM on November 2, 2012


So would it be practical to drop pigeons out a sonotube, like the hurricane pilots, or would a pigeon explode into a gory mess as it exits the aircraft at flight speed?
posted by five fresh fish at 10:27 AM on November 2, 2012


I love that the caption on tidy calm Mr. Martin by his hearth cheerfully showing the velveteen display box of bird bones begins with the word "Shock." That pic is about as shocking as a slice of cake.
posted by mwhybark at 10:27 AM on November 2, 2012 [1 favorite]


I get, "Bally Jerry pranged his kite right in the how's your father. Hairy blighter, dicky-birdied, feathered back on his Sammy, took a waspy, flipped over on his Betty Harper's and caught his can in the Bertie."

I'm afraid I don't quite follow you.
posted by chimaera at 10:42 AM on November 2, 2012


.-- . / .- .--. --- .-.. --- --. .. --.. . / ..-. --- .-. / - .... . / .. -. -.-. --- -. ...- . -. .. . -. -.-. . .-.-.-
posted by randomkeystrike at 10:44 AM on November 2, 2012 [1 favorite]


It's perfectly ordinary banter, chimaera.
posted by mwhybark at 10:45 AM on November 2, 2012 [1 favorite]


IHAVE EATEN THEPL UMSTH
ATWER EINTH EICEB OXAND
WHICH YOUWE REPRO BBABL
YSAVI NGFOR BREAK FASTF
ORGIV EMETH EYWER ESOSW
EETAN DSOCO LD

"...dammit 007, stop mucking about with the pigeons and get back to work!"
posted by 1f2frfbf at 11:36 AM on November 2, 2012 [4 favorites]


Tim Brooke-Taylor: Look, a carrier pigeon with a message tied to its leg!
John Cleese: What does it say?
TBT: It says .. "this is the leg of a carrier pigeon".
JC: Turn it over, I think there's something written on the back!
TBT: So there is! It says .. "this is the back of a carrier pigeon".
JC: Is that it?
TBT: No, wait, there's a PS!
JC: What does it say?
TBT: Pssss.
posted by verstegan at 11:37 AM on November 2, 2012 [3 favorites]


"I saw the loop continuing forever, and so I closed it."
posted by maxwelton at 11:38 AM on November 2, 2012


Twitter©
posted by de at 12:01 PM on November 2, 2012 [3 favorites]


Just came in to check how long it took for the Drink More Ovaltine joke. Disappointed.
posted by sexyrobot at 10:43 PM on November 2, 2012


Just came in to check how long it took for the Drink More Ovaltine joke. Disappointed.

First comment not quick enough? ;)
posted by Celsius1414 at 5:06 AM on November 3, 2012


WE HAVE FOUND YOUR OTHER BALL STOP WANT IT BACK STOP SURRENDER STOP
posted by marienbad at 6:05 AM on November 23, 2012


According to some articles out today, this was most likely encrypted by a one-time-pad and so it's not breakable, even theoretically.
posted by empath at 10:20 AM on November 23, 2012


Code Found on Pigeon Baffles British Cryptographers
posted by homunculus at 2:14 PM on November 23, 2012


Mr. Martin said he was skeptical of the idea that GCHQ had been unable to crack the code. “I think there’s something about that message that is either sensitive or does not reflect well” on British special forces operating behind enemy lines in wartime France, he said in a telephone interview. “I’m convinced that it’s an important message and a secret message.”

Nonsense. There's probably a thousand amateur codebreakers out there working on this who have capabilities equal to what the GCHQ can bring to bear, and they haven't cracked it yet, either.

If it's really a one-time-pad, they never will.
posted by empath at 2:30 PM on November 23, 2012


Oh sure, someone will be able to decode a plaintext message out of it. They just won't have any way to tell if it's the correct original message.
posted by charlie don't surf at 3:36 PM on November 23, 2012


Tangentially interesting: Language Log vs a coded postcard.
posted by Jode at 5:44 AM on November 24, 2012


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