The article in the Turkish national daily Haberturk was serious. A European bee-eater, “Merops apiaster,” was found dead in a field. Its leg had a metal ring stamped with the words “Israel Tel Aviv”.
One of its nostrils was suspiciously large. Authorities reckoned it was evidence that electronic surveillance equipment had been stuffed inside. For some Turks, it all added up to Israeli espionage. But could birds actually be spies?
“No,” says Ornithologist Cagan Sekercioglu from the University of Utah. He runs a bird-banding station in northwestern Turkey.
“The very word intelligence and intelligence gathering you obviously could not apply to birds, because creatures without intelligence cannot gather intelligence,” Sekercioglu says.
He says bird-banding is a valuable research tool to study birds’ migration routes. One wonders if the bird was a spook, why would it be clearly banded with the name of the country it was supposedly spying for?
Last year another banded bird caught the attention of authorities in Saudi Arabia. They detained a vulture which was also banded Tel Aviv Israel.
“Thankfully the Crown Prince was a smart guy who knew about science and wildlife research,” says Sekercioglu. “He said they are just studying this bird’s movements so let it go.”
Suspected animal conspirators are found beyond the avian variety. In 2010, Egyptian officials said they were investigating a shark attack in the Red Sea which killed a tourist. In a TV interview, Egyptian diving instructor Mustafa Ismail suggested Israel’s intelligence agency, the Mossad, had changed shark behavior to disrupt Egyptian tourism. And, he suggested, they sent deadly jellyfish too.
But perhaps most mysterious was a report in 2007 in the official Iranian, Islamic Republic News Agency or IRNA.
Fourteen squirrels were “arrested” by Iranian intelligence. The IRNA report said the animals were “carrying spy gear of foreign agencies,” and that they “were stopped before they could act, thanks to the alertness of our intelligence services.”
If the US were running a squirrel spying program, Peter Smallwood, a squirrel biologist from the University of Richmond, would probably be running it. He denies the existence of any such program, of course. And anyway, he says squirrels wouldn’t make very good spies.
“I think it’s easy to lure squirrels to a place to get something they want,” Smallwood says. “But that means you have to go there and put the stuff there. For intelligence work, you want to the squirrel to go out somewhere, not come to where you are, if you are going to put a person there to draw the squirrel in, you might as well have a person there to do the spying.”
Though he says squirrels might be cut out for some spy agency work.
“If you wanted a squirrel to just drive somebody crazy, that might be more useful but you’d need to be there with the squirrel,” Smallwood says.
The tensions between Israel and most of its neighbors show little sign of easing in the near future. Similarly, the rich flora and fauna of Middle East conspiracy theories probably won’t diminish anytime soon either.