Call it “The Bird Who Knew Too Little.” Turkish officials had detained a kestrel on the suspicion that it was an Israeli spy raptor, but they released it this week after an X-ray scan showed no signs of surveillance equipment.
People in the town of Altinayva had discovered the kestrel and were worried by a band on the bird’s foot inscribed with “24311 Tel Avivunia Israel,” according to Reuters. Banding is a common practice in ornithology research, and it allows scientists to track migratory birds’ movements. Both the Common Kestrel and the Lesser Kestrel are frequent visitors to Israel and Turkey during the nesting season, often spending the winter in Africa.
Nevertheless, suspecting some fowl play, Altinayva residents brought the bird to the local governor. An X-ray scan performed at a local university hospital exonerated the feathered suspect after it failed to detect signs of microchips or listening devices.
While Turkey and Israel are allies, tensions have been simmering since 2010. In May of that year, the Israeli Defense Forces forcibly boarded six ships of a flotilla aimed at breaking a blockade of the Gaza Strip. Some of the activists on a ship named the “Mavi Marmara” fought back, and nine were killed -- eight Turkish nationals, and one American.
The IDF defended the response, noting that several of its soldiers were beaten and wounded. A United Nations Human Rights Council report called the operation a “disproportionate” response. In March, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu apologized for the incident to Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan.
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This isn’t the first time a bird’s been accused of being an Israeli agent. Last December, Western Sudanese officials captured a vulture carrying GPS equipment and wearing a device that allowed the bird to broadcast images. The vulture was also tagged with identification reading “Hebrew University, Jerusalem” and “Israel Nature Service.” Israeli ecologists said the vulture was part of a study looking at migration patterns. Another tagged vulture was detained in Saudi Arabia in 2011.
Mossad’s supposed mastery of animals isn’t just limited to air power either. In December 2010, a string of shark attacks occurred off the coast of Egypt. One shark was found with a GPS tracking device, leading some in the Egyptian media to question if the shark was being controlled by Israeli agents. South Sinai governor Mohammad Abdul Fadhil Shousha said it wasn’t out of the question that Israel would throw deadly sharks in the sea to hurt Egypt’s tourism industry, though he later dismissed the idea.
While most of the supposed Israeli animal spies have been exonerated, some critters really have been used for espionage. Homing pigeons proved invaluable agents to the Allies in World War II, delivering intelligence on German positions through flak and fire. The U.S. Navy, for example, has a squad of trained dolphins that can be used to search for underwater mines and suspicious divers. The U.S. military has also attempted to develop controllable “cyborg” insects by planting computer chips into living bugs.
Some animals, however, turn out not to be cut out for secret agent work. In the 1960s, the CIA worked on “Acoustic Kitty,” a Cold War project aimed at turning Soviet cats into bugging devices. Acoustic Kitty was canceled after a wired-up cat was struck and killed by a taxi on its first field test.