My name is the Bowery King, the ultimate information broker in my City. My plan to take over the criminal underworld involves using homeless people as spies and informants. This network would keep tabs on all things happening in the city, communicating with myself and each other to provide criminals with much needed information about rivals, police movemenrs, etc. When needed, the homeless population can be called on to perform assassinations for a price.

In order to build this network, there needs to be a continous form of communication. Emails and phones are all traceable, making this network vulnerable. Therefore, I plan to use the most populous animal in the city: pigeons. These go unnoticed among regular people, and seen as an annoyance by many. But, while they are rats with wings, I see an inconspicuous animals that won't be seen as suspicious and can relay messages back and forth constanly. This makes it the perfect and awesome way to relay important info that won't be traced back to me.

My city is broken down into 5 sections: Brooklyn, Manhattan, Queens, Bronx, and the forgotten borough of Staten Island. How can I organize the logistics of this network?

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    $\begingroup$ why do you need pigeon at all ? if you intend to use a network of people who pass under the radar, used a subset of these people to communicate to and then distribute the "message" by word of mouth or code or something $\endgroup$ Commented Oct 11, 2019 at 11:27
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    $\begingroup$ Isn’t this from John Wick? $\endgroup$
    – Enthu5ed
    Commented Oct 11, 2019 at 12:59
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    $\begingroup$ This sounds as if your homeless people are a reliable source of information and loyal to you. While there are certainly some homeless who were "just unlucky" and are otherwise well functioning, the majority of homeless is in this situation because of some disability to fit into society (=mental reasons). Many live day to day, not much caring about long-term consequences. If your enemy buys their service for a better price, what keeps them from doing so? $\endgroup$ Commented Oct 11, 2019 at 13:36
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    $\begingroup$ What is more suspicious, a homeless person mumbling something weird in his cheap phone, or a homeless person hand-writing a long message? Let alone tying any sort of message to a pigeon/rat/whatever. Forget about specifics of getting messages around when generating a message is already very suspicious. $\endgroup$ Commented Oct 11, 2019 at 19:44
  • $\begingroup$ Have you been watching Ghost Dog? $\endgroup$ Commented Oct 11, 2019 at 21:38

4 Answers 4


Pigeons are largely one way messengers, they travel home from wherever they are but they don't travel back and forth. For every message you want to send by pigeon, someone has to carry a pigeon in a cage. That means that somewhere in your messaging system you've got a lot of people running back and forth with caged pigeons. While pigeons in flights aren't much noticed, bums with pigeons in cages likely will be. You've just taken on a massive logistics problem.

There's also the question of their homing nature. It's not locked to a person but to a location. You'll have to have pickup points for messages rather than messages going to the person. All your people will have to check in to a hub regularly to collect messages, which possibly breaks the advantage of being vagrants in the first place.

Have you considered training rats instead?

Not forgetting of course, that RFC 1149 exists.

  • $\begingroup$ Rats also immediately came to mind, but the distances would be different. frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fevo.2019.00013/full, section Home Range mentions distances <= 200 meter in populated areas. Training may extend that somewhat. $\endgroup$
    – user3106
    Commented Oct 11, 2019 at 11:49
  • $\begingroup$ @JanDoggen, absolutely, pigeons do have some advantages like doing 40mph for hundreds of miles, but a city is only so big. $\endgroup$
    – Separatrix
    Commented Oct 11, 2019 at 12:44
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    $\begingroup$ @JanDoggen Then a network of rats, each hourly checking four edgepoints of their 100x100 'home range', and passing messages between these four based on some coded instruction (e.g, color-coded, and they each unwrap a layer). Then messages can be routed (a sort of not-self-repairing internet, with errors propagating very strongly), travelling 100m per hour. $\endgroup$ Commented Oct 11, 2019 at 21:02
  • $\begingroup$ +1 for citing the RFC $\endgroup$ Commented Oct 11, 2019 at 21:39

Raise Alerts, Not Messages

Old-school spy tactics (notably during the Cold War) frequented the idea of relying on ambiguous, pre-defined "alerts". These alerts could be anything from "meet me at checkpoint/safehouse X" to "you've been compromised" to "perform this specific action". Having these alerts combined together makes this. I can't remember where I read this, but a former spy gave an example that went something like this:

As you drive to work every day, if a specific house/office/whatever has their blinds open (or black instead of white, or whatever), you know there is a message for you. To get that message you would go to a specific tree in a specific park, and there would be a newspaper under a rock. The scores of the sports teams would be circled - if team A's name was circled, then that meant "let's meet at the safehouse tonight", if team A's score was circled, then that meant "you've been compromised". There would a long list of this messages to be memorized.

You can do something similar with your pigeons: have the pigeons leave a green flag on a specific window. Then all the homeless people know group meeting tonight. Having a pigeon leave a red flag means be careful - police are on to us. Different windows, different flags, different messages.

The advantage of using pigeons is that they can't be interrogated, you'll never kill all of them, and they can leave these flags in multiple locations around the city, so transient homeless individuals will always have a way to see the alerts.

There are problems, however. (a) Once the system is compromised it must be completely redrawn - including retraining every homeless person with the new system. (b) The alerts have to be on public display, so they can't be too specific. (c) The messages can't be delivered to a specific individual.


Why use rats with wings when you can use rats?

As noted, homing pigeons have to be transported from their home loft to the sender, which is conspicuous.

Rats are smart, ubiquitous, trainable, get on well with homeless people, and can unlike pigeons can travel unnoticed in the cities sewers and other little-frequented spaces. Once they learn that they can get a reward by carrying a message capsule to (say) anyone wearing the right sort of hat they will be an efficient distributed messaging system, like interbet message packets with legs and snakey tails...

  1. Message starts at a client...
  2. Client brings message to their closest depot's downstairs.
  3. At the depot a message coordinator takes the message.
  4. They encrypt it with the day's cypher and make a copy.
  5. The message gets put into a capsule and sent Upstairs to...
  6. A pigeon keeper takes a fresh pigeon and puts the capsule on the pigeon.
  7. They fly home to the central depot.
  8. The central depot's pigeon keeper takes the returning pigeon and removes the capsule.
  9. The capsule goes downstairs to the King's trusted Aide.
  10. The Aide decodes the message and gives it to the King.


One Pigeon Expert in the operation, they coordinate sections. One Head Keeper per depot stays with the cages and tends to the birds. In addition the Head Keeper at main depot hands new capsules to King's Aide. Assistant keepers bring in new birds from the wild and do menial labor. Central depot Assistant sends out rested birds to other depots. Trainee keeper shadows Assistants.


One messenger coordinator master keeps role and assigns rotations across all sections. You'll need 24/7 coverage. One message coordinator per depot interfaces with the outside world and naked messages.


Well treated, but also disposable. Recruited from wild city pigeons and bred. Need cleaning and feeding, this is not cheap.


Use a one time pad, updated daily. Consider sending two pigeons at a time with the same message. That way one can tell if their network is being attacked. It also provides backup and verification. Keep the messages as short as possible. Write them on cigarette wrapping paper. Burn them as soon as they get where they're going.

Cryptography is no joke. Read up on Bletchly Park. Remember, even in a theoretically robust and secure system it still has to be accessed by humans and humans are notoriously buggy.


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