Since pigeons aren’t exactly known for their eye-hand coordination — lacking hands — they couldn’t pilot missiles the way humans pilot planes. So B. F. Skinner designed Project Pigeon’s central apparatus around an ability pigeons display on a daily basis: pecking the heck out of stuff.
Project Pigeon revolved around a pigeon-sized cockpit Skinner dubbed the “Pelican” that sat at the front of the missile. This nose cone didn’t have a Pelican beak, but the design necessity reminded Skinner of an adage about pelicans, specifically that they are birds “whose beak can hold more than its belly can,” hence the name.
Whenever a pigeon was placed inside the Pelican, it was strapped in place and pecked at a screen that projected an image, specifically the target the missile was supposed to hit. As the pigeon pecked, cables attached to its head would help direct the missile. If the pigeon pecked at the center of the screen, the missile would fly straight, and if it didn’t, the cables would send signals that altered missile trajectory until the pigeon started pecking at the image’s center.
As Skinner continued Project Pigeon, he eventually learned that three pigeons were better than one. If a pigeon paused for only a second or made a mistake, a missile could fly dangerously off course, so giving it two co-pilots and making it so the Pelican sent a “net signal” produced by all three helped prevent these potentially costly errors.