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Homing pigeons replace chickens for early warning of chemical attack

LIVING SUPPORT AREA 1, Kuwait—The chickens that were shipped here to help provide early warning of a chemical attack, didn't work out. They died in the harsh desert conditions last month.

Now the 1st Marine Division plans to go into battle with a flock of 175 homing pigeons. The birds arrived at their units Friday.

Like canaries in mine shafts, the pigeons are expected to be the first to detect chemical weapons if Saddam Hussein orders his troops to use them. Their condition could help confirm a chemical attack, especially if Saddam sets fire to his country's oil wells; petroleum fumes often trigger false positives on more high-tech detection equipment.

Staff Sgt. Dan Wallace, the Nuclear, Biological and Chemical (NBC) officer for the division's Regimental Combat Team 1, said pigeons show signs of exposure to deadly chemicals at half the dose lethal to humans. They have a higher respiratory rate than humans and metabolize chemicals faster, he said.

"If all the (birds) are dead and we have people getting runny noses and headaches, we'll know something is wrong " Wallace said. "These are not early warning mechanisms. This is verification."

"It's just another layer to give us the confidence out there," said Chief Warrant Officer 2 Stacy Jaembert, the division's NBC officer.

The chickens died from what Jaembert believes were natural causes, but the pigeons are hardier and are expected to fare better. He purchased them from a local bird dealer for about $55 each, including cages and food and water bowls. He also bought bags containing a granola-like mixture of bird food.

Chief Warrant Officer Jason Gere, 1st Battalion's NBC officer, said each of eight "maneuver elements" would get one of the pigeons and would appoint a Marine to feed, water and care for it.

Just how the birds will go to war if called is not decided. The 1st Battalion's Marines, who form a unit of the 1st Marine Division, would like to mount the cages atop their Humvees, light armored vehicles and amphibious assault vehicles if they charge into battle.

But Wallace, who fellow Marines began addressing as Pigeon Master in radio calls Friday, said the pigeons can't take the shock of constant bouncing.

Lt. Col. John Mayer, the battalion's commanding officer, said he expects vehicles to be fully laden with Marines and their equipment with no room for birds inside. He proposed windbreaks for the cages. "They need to go outside," he said.

The Marines also argued about what the pigeons should be called. A pigeon assigned to a logistics unit was initially dubbed Cookie, but later became Boudreaux under the influence of five unit members from Louisiana and East Texas. Other pigeons were christened Outlaw, Trigger, Sarsaparilla, Jackball and Doc as in Doc Holliday.

If the pigeons survive a war, or if there is no war, they face an uncertain future; U.S. customs restrictions prohibit their entry into the United States. Wallace suggested that they might be honorably discharged and sent into retirement at an institution such as a school in Kuwait or Iraq.

There were other ideas. "If we're still here by Thanksgiving," said Master Gunnery Sgt. Russell Johnson, "we'll have to eat them with some dressing."

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(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): warbirds

Iraq

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