The Story Behind the US Military's Cold War-Era Goose Platoons

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If you see this look anywhere, run.

Nothing would ruin a secret Soviet sabotage mission like running into a guard that can't be snuck up on, caught or even managed. Nothing would ruin the vibe (or the mission) of a James Bond movie if 007 had to chase down a loud, honking goose while it ran, wings flapping. An angry goose might even be enough to neutralize Soviet spies.

In 1986, the U.S. military realized the potential for guard geese at its European Air Defense installations and placed 900 of the birds at strategic locations across Europe. Like the old Army adage says: If something is stupid and it works, then it isn't stupid.

Geese actually have a long history of military service, dating back to the Roman Republic. Around 390 B.C., a Gallic army invaded Northern Italy and made it all the way to where the Tiber River meets the Allia River, about 10 miles north of Rome itself, according to the ancient historian Livy.

"The goose is carefully watchful; witness the defense of the capitol when the silence of the dogs would have betrayed nothing," wrote Pliny the Elder.

Don't let the majesty fool you. This is a cold-blooded killer. (U.S. Air Force/Heide Couch)

It's not really known how many men fought in the Battle of Allia, but we do know the Romans and their allies were outnumbered by the Gauls, who surprised Rome with how fast they were able to advance. Roman troops broke and ran as fast as they could, and most were slaughtered for their effort, leading the Gauls to sack Rome and murder most of its senators.

The one place where Romans stood their ground was Capitoline Hill, which the Gallic warriors could not take in a direct fight. One night, they attempted to sneak up on the Roman guards under the cover of darkness, but they made the mistake of assaulting near the Temple of Juno, the goddess protector of the Roman state.

Whether it was divine intervention or dumb luck is anyone's guess, but the flocks of geese that happened to live near the temple were roused by the Gauls. The obnoxious honking and fluttering of the geese awakened the Romans, who quickly repulsed the invaders. For their assistance, geese were elevated to divine status and given a home in the temple.

It turned out that geese are an ideal animal guard. They have keen hearing and, like all birds, great eyesight. Their vision is not just superior to humans' (and dogs', by the way), they can also see finer detail, as well as ultraviolet. These senses evolved to spot predators, and geese can also control each eye separately.

True to Pliny the Elder's exaltation of the birds, geese leave half their brain switched on while sleeping, with their eyes open.

An extremely territorial animal, once an intruder is spotted, they will not only raise a commotion, but may even attack the invader with or without the rest of the flock.

Chinese Geese, like the one pictured, are especially known for being obnoxiously loud. (U.S. Marine Corps/Lance Cpl. Jackeline Perez Rivera

The biggest selling point is that geese (and swans, by the way) tend to stay close to their nesting area and can recognize other creatures (like humans, especially those in uniforms) as being safe members of their own flock.

So while dogs have a great many uses in areas such as detecting bombs and rescuing humans buried in rubble, geese are keenly more suited to keeping a watchful eye on things like American air power. That's why the Army launched a pilot program for guard geese at the 32nd Air Defense Command in what was then West Germany.

Some 18 geese stood watch over communications, radar and anti-aircraft weapons there after a soldier visited the Ballantine whisky distillery in Scotland to observe its flock of guard geese. Ballantine had been using geese effectively since 1959, so the Army gave it a shot.

The service ended up dispatching 30 goose platoons of six to 40 birds each to locations across Western Europe. Not only were the geese as effective as guard dogs, they were much cheaper and required no feeding or veterinary maintenance. No goose-related incidents came from the effort, but it was considered an effective force against any Soviet (or Gallic) infiltrator.

-- Blake Stilwell can be reached at blake.stilwell@military.com. He can also be found on Twitter @blakestilwell or on Facebook.

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