This summer, Peter McIndoe has been living out of his van. The truck is small, with a sleeping bag in the back and posters of Clay Aiken – his childhood hero – on the walls. He has slept here every night on his campaign trail around the US, which has so far involved Texas, Oklahoma and Arkansas. His mission? To unite all “bird truthers”.
Since 2016, McIndoe has devoted his life to telling the world that birds aren’t real. Or at least, that’s what he likes to tell journalists and anyone else who will listen. Like all good satirists, he blends parody and reality seamlessly. “In the States, at least, everything we see is filled with bird propaganda. Our national mascot is a bird – the bald eagle – each of the 50 states in the US has a state bird. With bird mascots, at a certain point, you should start asking some questions,” he tells me.
It is near impossible to confirm whether McIndoe is joking, or if Peter is even his real name, although he seems earnest when he tells me that he is 23 years old, a glimmer of pride in his voice.
Still, joke or not, real money has gone into telling the world that all birds were destroyed by the US government and replaced with drones; advanced enough to look like real birds and technologically sophisticated enough to spy on the world’s citizens.
According to McIndoe, between the years 1959-2001, the US state “murdered every bird in existence using murderous toxins dropped from airplanes”. Spend some time on the YouTube channel dedicated to the cause and you will learn that in the late 1970s, a group of people discovered the US government’s conspiracy and founded the campaign group Birds Aren’t Real. McIndoe cites an alleged archive video as evidence of its rich history, although after a few moments it’s clear the video has been doctored with a vintage filter with some old-fashioned computers as props.
To get the message to the US and to the world, McIndoe tells me he’s paid thousands of dollars for billboards with the words “Birds Aren’t Real” emblazoned across them; allegedly erected in Tennessee and also on a LA highway last year. According to McIndoe, his team is made up of three – “including Ed the intern”, he adds – but it’s hard to tell whether this is actually just a group of one, as McIndoe almost exclusively features in the group’s videos.
Since the group became active on social media four years ago, the Birds Aren’t Real pages have grown into thriving communities. The subreddit r/BirdsArentReal has over 400,000 followers, while its TikTok has over 600,000. In total, its YouTube channel has over a million views. Most of its followers are in on the joke; “Canadian gooses are CONFIRMED to be pushing an anti-vax agenda,” posts one Reddit user, with a link to a spoof news article. But some followers seem to take McIndoe’s words more seriously: “I 100% believe this and I have believed this is real for a while before I even heard of this,” shares one user. “I would indulge in the idea that there are a few in the air,” writes another.
Throughout our hour-long Zoom call, McIndoe is sat in the driving seat of his van. Occasionally he stands up to show me his sleeping bag or the piles of clothes and random items on the vehicle’s floor. Somehow for our entire conversation, McIndoe manages to keep a straight face. Wearing grey and blue matrix sunglasses and with the mannerisms of Ned Flanders from The Simpsons, he seems to be a well-versed comedy act, although he would be outraged at the mere suggestion. “We have experienced a lot of media bias, especially from the people at Newsweek; they released a whole story saying we are a comedy project,” he tells me. In response to this Newsweek article, McIndoe orchestrated a short video in which several dark figures dressed up as birds look threateningly into the camera.
“You know, it’s classic. Some guys say something that you don’t like and suddenly it’s ‘that guy’s a clown’, ‘that guy’s a joke’, you know, immediately they make that group the other,” he says. “What Newsweek didn’t know at the time was that we had just uncovered hundreds of emails with the poultrygate leak that revealed that, you know, even people on the top of Newsweek were heavily involved with this.”
The “poultrygate leak” refers to what the group’s website calls “the most important email leak in history”. According to McIndoe, the movement received emails from White House and Pentagon whistleblowers confirming that birds are in fact drones: “All that we know is these emails were sent and found on Yahoo servers. Hollywood elites and A-listers are also involved with this, as we assumed – such as Kevin Sorbo and Clay Aiken.”
Throughout our conversation, McIndoe occasionally hints at a glimmer of truth. “I would think, you know, even if people do perceive us as a joke, maybe it might just provide a safe space of sorts, for people to come together and laugh at the absurdity of the world that we’re in right now, a place where truth truly seems to not exist anymore,” he says.
It is no coincidence that the page was set up in the aftermath of Donald Trump’s 2016 election win. As online conspiracy theories like QAnon and Pizzagate quietly divide the US, McIndoe’s words offer an unlikely commentary on our era of misinformation.
Strip away the content of the conspiracy theory, and he offers real insights into how people become radicalised online: “I didn’t have many friends growing up, and I kind of had a hard time in life. Places like 4chan were where I could be the main character in the world, I was no longer a side character,” he says. “I was no longer the guy losing the game. I go on 4chan and I’m the main character of a suspense movie.” While we can’t be sure if this was actually McIndoe’s teenage experience, his message is pertinent in a world where extremism – from “incels” and far-right zealotry to radical Islamism – is bred in unassuming corners of the internet.
But it isn’t long before McIndoe quickly goes back to birds, insisting “I could never relate to that perspective of Birds Aren’t Real being a joke”. He continues: “I think that the true benefit here is the more people realise the 12 billion birds in the skies are all robots and surveillance drones run by the government.”
At its heart, Birds Aren’t Real is a delicate mix of post-truth satire and s**tposting; just plausible enough to get media attention, but ironic enough to attract a cult following among the young and online – all of them happy to be in on the joke.
But while McIndoe’s irony is smart, is he on the verge of taking things too far? “If it ever gets into a realm of any hatred or harm towards a fellow human or a fellow living thing you know, our movement is anti-violent,” he says. “This is a big misconception about our movement; that we have some problem with birds or something. No, we love birds. That’s why we started doing it.”
It’s easy to see how McIndoe might lose control of his beast. He seems worried about the consequences of this article: “I don’t know if this is going to go out and, you know, will hurt me personally or harm me. What I do know is that this will bring more eyes to our movement. Whatever story comes out from this interview, it will lead to one person being awakened, one person being bird-pilled.”
And he is right. As the Birds Aren’t Real online presence grows, it will attract people outside of its young cult following; people unaware of McIndoe’s joke; isolated internet users that are readier than ever to channel their suspicion of the government into a new paranoia, this time one fuelled by birds and satire.
“With the internet, it’s so much harder for the government to censor us. So share this video,” McIndoe says in one of his recent YouTube clips. “It gets harder to tell where the joke is,” replies one user. “Will I see the punch line or have I become the joke?” We can only wait and see.
[See also: Can anyone “steal” your life from social media?]