The British Tried Training Gulls to Find Submarines in World War One

To detect deadly German subs, the Royal Navy turned to Herring Gulls.

This audio story is brought to you by BirdNote, a partner of The National Audubon Society. BirdNote episodes air daily on public radio stations nationwide.


This is BirdNote.

A hundred years ago, the submarine was one of the most feared weapons deployed in World War I. 

Over the course of the war, these silent prowlers sank almost 5,000 ships, sending 15,000 sailors to watery graves. Scientists and navy men worked desperately to come up with a way to detect enemy subs. 

One such scheme emerged from the British Board of Invention and Research in 1915. It involved feeding wild gulls from a dummy periscope, in the hope that the birds would come to associate submarines with a free meal. The sight of a wheeling, whirling flock of gulls would warn ships of a U-boat lurking nearby. 

It didn’t work, though one admiral tried to salvage the effort by suggesting that the gulls be taught to defecate on the periscopes, thus blinding the submarine crews. 

When the US entered the war in 1917, the ornithologist R.M. Strong proposed resurrecting the British plan, this time with hand-raised birds from colonies on Lake Michigan. But fortunately for all parties, sonar research was making great headway, and the Herring Gulls of the world were left in peace.

There’s always more to the story—and photos, too—at I’m Michael Stein.



Written by Rick Wright

Narrator: Michael Stein

Producer: John Kessler

Executive Producer:  Sallie Bodie

Bird sounds provided by The Macaulay Library of Natural Sounds at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, New York. Northern Fulmar [98867] by William W.H. Gunn; Herring Gull [59245] by William W.H Gunn. George M. Cohan, “Over There.” Nora Bayes. On line at BirdNote's theme music was composed and played by Nancy Rumbel and John Kessler.

© 2017 Tune In to    May 2017