9 Jul 2022


Response to Pigeons in a Pelican by B.F Skimmer

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The year1943 saw America desperately in need of a reliable way to bomb the Nazi in Germany. B.F. Skinner in his book wrote that all America needed were pigeons. During the Second World War, America was concerned about aiming missiles. The military was specifically concerned on how to aim them. Skinner with his plan project named “Project pigeon” approached the National Research Defense committee. The committee members were doubtful but granted him $25, 000 for a start. Below is a discussion of response to Pigeons in a pelican (Skimmer, 1974). 

According to Green (1997), a nose cone was built for the missile and fitted with three electronic screens and tiny cockpits pigeons. Projections were made of images of the ground in front of the rocket. He trained street pigeons to identify patterns of the targets and peck whenever they saw the target. Assumptions were made that, when all three pigeons pecked a missile, it would be aimed at that direction. As the pigeons pecked, cables connect to each other’s head and mechanically steered the missile to its mark. Despite an escape hatch, the birds die along with their target therefore a kamikaze mission. In spite of successfully demonstrating the trained pigeons, the officials were still skeptical therefore terminated the project. Skinner on the other hand became the country’s most influential psychologist and popularized behaviorism which was a concept that viewed behavior as a person’s reaction to their environment. 

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Historical significance of this project to the development of behaviorism 

Skinner believed that people have a mind however it is productive to study observable behavior instead of internal mental events. He believed that the best way to understand behavior is to look at the causes of action and its effects. This approach was called operant conditioning. This approach was based on Thorndike’s law of effect. A new term was introduced into the law of effect; reinforcement. A reinforced behavior tends to be repeated over time. Behavior which is not reinforced tends to die out. Positive reinforcement strengthens one’s behavior by providing consequences that some people find rewarding. For instance, if a teacher gives a student $5 each time they complete their homework, one is likely to repeat this behavior in the future thus strengthening the behavior of completing homework (Skimmer, 1971). 

Another historical importance of this project to the development of behaviorism is that behaviorists discovered that different patterns of strengthening had different effects on the pace of learning and on destruction. Different ways to deliver reinforcement were devised and it had effects on the response rate. This was the rate which rat pressed the lever. This is how hard the rat worked. It also had effect on the extinction rate which represents how soon the rat gave up. This type of reinforcement, according to Skinner produces the lowest rate of extinction. 

The next important behavioral contribution by this project is the behavioral shaping through successive approximation. According to Skinner (1974), when the principles of operant conditioning are used, they can produce complicated behavior if rewards and punishments are encouraged to move a person closer to the preferred behavior. Behavior modification is also another historical significance to the development of behaviorism. It involves changing the events of the environment that are related to one’s behavior, for instance, the reinforcement of desired behaviors and ignoring undesired ones. 

My opinion as to why the project was not carried out by the military 

The reason as to why the project was not carried out by the military is because they needed to know how to aim the pigeon accurately. The Nazis were already experimenting with guided Missiles. The US government and the military then decided to recruit Skinner to develop his project. The Nazis at this time were using their missiles against Great Britain with pressure on the military to produce something to counter this treat (Green, 1997). 

The Ethical implications of using Pigeons 

One of the experiments by Skimmer examined the formation of Superstition in his “pigeon” experiments. Series of hungry pigeons were placed in a cage and attached to automatic mechanisms that delivered food to the pigeon. This was done on regular intervals without references to the bird’s behavior. He discovered that the pigeons associated the foods delivery which actions performed and they continued to perform these actions. He says “One bird was conditioned to turn counter-clockwise about the cage, making two or three turns between reinforcements. Another repeatedly thrust its head into one of the upper corners of the cage. A third developed a 'tossing' response, as if placing its head beneath an invisible bar and lifting it repeatedly. Two birds developed a pendulum motion of the head and body, in which the head was extended forward and swung from right to left with a sharp movement followed by a somewhat slower return”. 

According to Skimmer (1971), the pigeons believed they were influencing automatic mechanism with their rituals with the experiment shedding light on human behavior. A few accidental relations between a ritual and favorable consequences suffice to set up and maintain the behavior in spite of many unreinforced cases. The behaviors’ by Pigeons could be accounted for by the normal foraging behaviors’ of the species of the experiment. 


From the above discussion, it is evident that the pigeon was a project suggested by B.F. Skinner to give a solution to the US military in fighting against the Nazi. The project by Skinner was given $25000 for a start and after a while the committee having not been convinced disputed it. The project however had an effect on influencing man’s behavior. The project insisted on reinforcement in behaviorism and how it can affect one by doing the same again. 


Green, C. D. (1997). Classics in the history of psychology . Toronto, Canada: York University. 

Skinner, B. F. (1974). About behaviorism . New York: Knopf. Random House. 

Skinner, B. F. (1971). Beyond freedom and dignity . New York: Knopf. 

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