Project Blue Peacock: The UK's Plan To Use Live Chickens To Detonate Nuclear Weapons

In the early 1950s, when the Cold War between the West and the Soviets was heating up, both sides continually looked for ways to get a military edge over the other. This thinking led to many strange top-secret military projects, from using LSD as a possible truth serum on captured enemy troops to a U.S. plan that involved hiding nuclear weapons under Greenland's ice caps, per History. One of the strangest of these came from the British.

In 1949, Germany formally split into two countries: West Germany, tied to Western Europe, and East Germany, allied with the USSR. The British Army of the Rhine, stationed in West Germany, was there to protect the border in case of an invasion. But the Soviets' overwhelming superiority in conventional weapons had the British looking for an advantage, per the 2020 book "Really!?" One potential solution involved nuclear landmines that incorporated live chickens.

The serious military project with a funny name 

In late 1954, the British War Office began exploring the idea of a nuclear landmine, and the Armament Research and Development Establishment in Kent — in charge of the U.K.'s nuclear weapons program — ran with Project Blue Peacock, as described by researcher David Hawkings, who first wrote about the secret program in the journal Discovery in 2003. As envisioned by the scientists, the weapon, weighing in at about 16,000 pounds, would have a 10-kiloton punch, about half the firepower of the bomb the U.S. dropped on Nagasaki during World War II, according to Discovery and New Scientist.

The British Army wanted 10 of them, which they planned to bury along the border with East Germany, according to New Scientist. They produced two prototypes and tested the weapon (without its nuclear material) in a flooded gravel pit. The scientists ran up against one big potential problem: keeping the weapon warm enough to be viable during a cold German winter. And that's where the chickens came in.

A chicken detonator of sorts 

If they placed a small flock of chickens inside the device with enough food and water for about eight days, the birds would produce enough heat to keep the bomb from freezing up. A secret document from 1957 discussed this in detail and posited that "'chickens, with a heat output of the order of 1,000 BTU per bird per day are a possibility," according to the Daily Mail. And when the birds died, they would act as a kind of timer. There were two other more practical means of exploding the bomb as well — an actual timer, and by remote detonation using a wire (per Discovery). In February 1958, the Ministry of Defense nixed the project, deciding the device was just too unwieldy to be practical and that the ensuing fallout would be too dangerous.

The idea of using animals as part of a weapon system wasn't unprecedented. During World War II, the U.S. Navy's Project Pigeon looked into training pigeons to guide glide bombs, per Modern Farmer, except in this case, the British had the advantage of not having to train the birds to do the job. All the chickens had to do was eat and drink, lie around, and then, unfortunately for them, die.