Forced out of the message-carrying business by satellites and telephone lines , pigeons are finding employment as rescue spotters for the Coast Guard. Off Hawaii, a team of three pigeons rides in a clear plastic bubble underneath a rescue helicopter. When one of the birds spots a lifejacket - or any red, orange, or yellow object on the ocean surface - it alerts the pilot by pecking at an alarm button. The bird's position in the observation bubble tells the pilot what direction he should take.
Although the pigeons are only an aid to the crew of spotters aboard, the Coast Guard has found the birds spotted test markers 90 percent of the time compared with 38 percent for the rescue crew.
The project, experimental since 1978, is one example of how animals are outperforming man in some jobs. And rightly or wrongly, pigeons, whales, and other animals are flocking to join the growing ranks of today's ''blue-collar beasts.''
In Hot Springs, Ark., for example, the newest working beast is a chicken that runs computers.
Dubbed ''Compuchik'' by its trainers at Animal Behavior Enterprises Inc. (ABE), the chicken has been taught to answer questions via computer. Type ''hello'' onto the keyboard, and the bird can peck out: ''Hello, my name is Compuchik. What is your name?''
After these formalities, the feather-brain pecks out a few easy questions, and inquirers choose which ones they want answered. Gradually, the questions get harder and can range from mathematics to history. But Compuchik answers them, outlasting most people, who get bored getting answers from a chicken.
''Many people do not realize what the animal is capable of,'' explains ABE president Marian Bailey. The object of Compuchik is to show people how easy a computer is to operate. The gimmick: ''If a chicken can do this, so can you.''
The techniques to train these animals are nothing new. Mrs. Bailey and her first husband were pioneering them during World War II. What has changed, she says, are the increasing number of species being used for a wider variety of jobs.
In San Diego, California sea lions at the Naval Ocean Systems Center are replacing deep-sea divers as retrievers of objects off the ocean floor - usually unarmed practice torpedoes. The sea lions home in on an acoustic beeper attached to the spent torpedo, rise to the surface to tell their handler they have heard something, then descend with a tow line and special clamp to attach to the torpedo.
The project not only maintains the Navy's supply of practice torpedoes, it saves the effort and expense of using deep-sea divers and their equipment, says Navy public affairs officer Joel Meriwether.
Despite these successes, many projects are opposed by animal lovers and environmental groups. Citing the cruel confinement of the beluga whales, Greenpeace recently released one of two beluga whales, which are practicing the retrieval techniques for the Navy in the deeper and colder waters of Nonoose, B.C. The whale, however, returned to its pen about 24 hours later, Mr. Meriwether says.
Meanwhile, the Army is training dogs for parachute duty at Fort Bragg, N.C. The idea is that wherever the 118th Military Police Company is sent, the dogs should follow - hence the parachute training in case guard dogs are needed in the bush of Africa, the desert of the Middle East, or some other inaccessible spot.
However, the 118th hasn't received permission for its dogs to parachute from planes. So they practice from 34-foot towers.
In the past, getting animal-at-work schemes approved has been a beastly business. ''There still is a credibility problem,'' admits Mrs. Bailey of ABE.
Even the military, although it has tried several animal projects over the years, has been skeptical.
During World War II, Bailey worked with the behaviorist B. F. Skinner on a pigeon-guided missile project for the Navy. ''The admirals were very impressed with the missile until they opened the nose cone and saw three pigeons sitting there,'' recalls Bailey.
Not surprisingly, the project was scrapped.