Could This Backpack-Wearing Pigeon Really Deliver Drugs?

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Police captured an unlikely drug smuggler — a homing pigeon — carrying a custom-made backpack loaded with what supposedly are 178 ecstasy pills (though one expert thinks that number is too high), the Mirror reported. But if the photo is legit, could a bird brain really deliver a package to a certain location, and if so, how?  

The bird was reportedly caught by customs officials in Kuwait after it crossed from neighboring Iraq. Local media outlet Al Arabiya published photos of the bird, its cargo still attached.

If the news is verified, this wouldn't be the first documented case of a pigeon being used to smuggle drugs. Two years ago, guards at the La Reforma Prison in Costa Rica caught a pigeon loaded with 14 grams of cocaine and 14 grams of marijuana, the Daily Mail reported. The guards reported that other animals, including iguanas and cats, also had been recruited to try to smuggle drugs into the prison. [10 Animal Recruits of War]

Homing pigeons are particularly adept at navigation, and scientists have tested several ideas for how they do it. In 2013, researchers reported in the Journal of Experimental Biology that they had found what may be responsible for the pigeons' direction-finding prowess. The birds, it seems, use low-frequency sound waves called infrasound to create a mental map of the topography of their location. 

Other theories include the idea that homing pigeons use changes in Earth's magnetic field to map out an area, or that they rely on the sun's arc as a guide. Still another idea is that these expert navigators can smell their way home

The pigeons may also be brainiacs, with the ability to learn several routes and hold those memories, according to research published online in April 2014 in the journal Biology Letters.

But could a homing pigeon be sent off to make a delivery? It's possible, but pigeons fly only one way — back home, experts say. That means the drug destination needed to already be imprinted as "home" for the pigeon: "The important thing to remember about homing pigeons is that they can't go from A to B and back. They go from B to A," said Andrew Blechman, author of"Pigeons: The Fascinating Saga of the World's Most Revered and Reviled Bird" (Grove Press, 2007).

Given their ability to return to their nests across great distances, pigeons have made ideal couriers in the past. In the first World War, they were used by armies to relay messages. Once released, a pigeon can fly up to 1,000 miles (1,600 kilometers) and find its way home, according to Deone Roberts, sport development manager for the American Racing Pigeon Union.

"They tried getting pigeons to travel between lofts, but I don't think they had much success," Roberts told Live Science.

As for the supposed drug-smuggling bird, even the sturdiest pigeon would have trouble carrying more than a few pills, much less 170. Could a pigeon be used to smuggle drugs? Yes, Blechman said, "but the photo doesn't look like 170, more like 30."

Original article on Live Science.

Live Science Contributor