Tracking pigeons could help us fight disease


Pigeons have earned a robust reputation for being dirty.

But scientists claim the vilified creature could protect us from disease if we monitor how they are affected by pollution and toxins.

In an unorthodox – but popular – suggestion, a researcher from the University of California suggests we could gather a focus group of pigeons to track as they consume the same water sources, soil and air pollution as humans.

Over time, it could help us to understand what contaminants we really are exposed to – from metal to BPA to lead. 

Dr Rebecca Calisi-Rodriguez, of UC Davis (pictured) suggests we could gather a focus group of pigeons to track as they consume the same water sources, soil and air pollution as humans

Dr Rebecca Calisi-Rodriguez, of UC Davis (pictured) suggests we could gather a focus group of pigeons to track as they consume the same water sources, soil and air pollution as humans

Dr Rebecca Calisi-Rodriguez, of UC Davis (pictured) suggests we could gather a focus group of pigeons to track as they consume the same water sources, soil and air pollution as humans

Though pigeons may seem an unusual protagonist, Dr Rebecca Calisi-Rodriguez, of UC Davis insists they are more similar to humans than we may like to think: they lactate, share similar tissue, and roam in similar ways.

‘They have a very small home range, spending the their life within a few neighborhood blocks,’ Dr Calisi-Rodriguez told the American Association for the Advancement of Science conference as she presented her research.

‘Because they are alive they process these chemicals in their bodies.

‘This offers up the opportunity to not only find toxin hot spots in our environment, but to understand how these toxins affect biology.’ 

Her idea builds on a study she carried out on pigeons living in New York City from 2010 to 2015. 

The team examined the blood lead levels of both children and feral pigeons. 

They found that children and pigeons inhabiting the same neighborhoods experienced similar patterns of lead in their blood. 

It is not unprecedented: pigeons have been used outside the US to monitor environmental contaminants on various sites – but usually not where humans live. 

According to Dr Calisi-Rodriguez, it’s time we started treating the pigeons as a viable option for public health.

‘What we learn in birds can have far-reaching implications,’ she said. 



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