License to Chirp: Avian Spies Over the Middle East

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A chirping came across the sky.

It's happened before, but this time it was different.

This incident was less than a week ago, on a sleepy Saturday morning. At 10:00 A.M., an Israel Air Force radar detected what seemed to be an intrusion by an enemy aircraft into Israel's airspace. Fighters were scrambled to intercept the intruder above the city of Tel Aviv.

The jets flew over Tel Aviv and the surrounding towns in the Gush Dan region, making roaring, panic-inducing sounds as they maneuvered at low altitude. Cars shook. Windows rattled. For a few seconds, residents of Tel Aviv thought Israel was under attack.

It was. Tel Aviv was under attack by a close formation of … birds, armed with the latest in advanced guano.

Two weeks before the avian assault on Tel Aviv, a foreign spy was captured in Qena, southern Egypt, with a camera-like electronic device attached to its back. A local fisherman, a devout patriot, caught the spy – a stork - and handed it over to the authorities. The spy was taken into custody for interrogation.

Unlike other digitally-enhanced reputed avian secret agents, this one turned out to be just an innocent stork, with a European wildlife tracker strapped to its back by scientists aiming to track its migration. Finally the bird, apparently named "Menes", was set free, though it was later found dead on an island in the Nile, where local villagers then ate it.

Menes was not, unfortunately, the only fowl persecuted by Middle Eastern authorities. In January, a wounded carrier pigeon was captured north of Cairo and sent for criminal investigation after a microfilm was found on one of its legs and a message on the other. In March, the carcass of a European bee-eater was suspected of belonging to an Israeli spy.

In July, in what just might be the biggest case of false imprisonment since the Dreyfus Affair, a kestrel was discovered in a village in Turkey's Elazig province, wearing a metallic ring with the words "24311 Tel Avivunia Israel" on one of its legs. It was accused of spying for Israel. Only after painstaking medical examination including X-rays was it confirmed that the unhappy bird was not in fact carrying a microchip that could transmit information back to Israel. Only then was it allowed to fly away.

Birds in the Middle East, it should be noted, have a long history of suspected espionage. It's true. Just take look at the Wikipedia entry "Israel-Related Animal Conspiracy Theories," that details the region's sordid history with covert fowl. In 2011, a griffon vulture was captured by a hunter in Saudi Arabia, who discovered it was wearing a GPS device with the tag "Tel Aviv University" on its leg (if that's not an Israeli espionage giveaway, I don’t know what is). The vulture was reported in several papers to be an Israeli spy, before being let go. In 2012, the same in Sudan, when an Israeli vulture with an electronic tracking device and a "Hebrew University, Jerusalem" tag was captured during a secret reconnaissance mission.

And that's before we've said a word about the December 2010 attacks by sharks in Sinai, who locals - among them the governor of South Sinai - claimed to be killer assassins sent by the Mossad, Israel’s espionage agency. Or the "spy-pigeons" Iran busted near one of its nuclear facilities in 2008.

After millennia of teetering over the edge, it seems the Middle East has gone totally bonkers.

Is it a bird? Is it a plane? Is it... both?

Now, there are two ways to explain these animal-spy stories. There's the "rational" explanation, which is that reports of foreign-agent falcons, undercover kestrels, sharks trained in assassination and mole pigeons attest mainly to the paranoia and xenophobia infesting the Middle East, especially when it comes to Israel. The birds could represent the fear of a drone-like aerial invasion by an unseen, alien, seemingly-innocent agent, conveying silent terror from above.

In a way, it’s the same role they played in Alfred Hitchcock's "The Birds" – innocent nature harnessed against us.

It bears note that stories of animal-spies, from killer cats to trained pigeons, were not rare during other times of heightened xenophobic anxiety, such as the Cold War or World War II.

The other explanation would be that the skies are truly filled with awesome avian spies: super-efficient, methodical, deadly 00#s with a license to chirp, equipped with cutting-edge electronic gadgets supplied to them by the mastermind Mossad version of Q. It might not be true, but gosh darn it if it's not better than the truth.

Is that a STORK? Why it doing on that high-wire - is it NESTING or is it COMMUNICATING SECRETS? Just asking.Credit: Eliahu Hershkovitz
The stork Menes, under arrest in Egypt, with the incriminating tracking device on its back.Credit: AP
You think that is a rock? It is not a rock. It is an espionage device. Syria says it's an Israeli espionage device found near the border.Credit: AP

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