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Researchers Use Pigeons to Track Lead Levels in New York City

A new study suggests that New York’s pigeons might be useful after all. Researchers at Columbia University’s Barnard College say that the birds could help identify neighborhoods in the city at high risk of lead contamination and allow authorities to address these issues before they develop into serious health threats for humans.

“Pigeons breathe the same air, walk the same sidewalks and often eat the same food as we do,” explained Dr. Rebecca Calisi, the study’s lead author. “What if we could use them to monitor possible dangers to our health in the environment, like lead pollution?”

Unlike other species of birds, pigeons tend to live within the same mile radius for the majority of their lives. Calisi used data from New York’s Wild Bird Fund rehabilitation center from 2010 to 2015, matching the levels of lead in birds’ blood to their zip code. Areas with the highest concentration of lead in pigeons correlated with records of lead levels in children from New York City’s Department of Health and Mental Hygiene.

Decades after a national ban on lead paint and other lead-based construction materials, concern about lead poisoning in children has reignited after the recent crisis in Flint, Michigan, where municipal water supplies were found to be highly contaminated with lead. It’s estimated that childhood lead exposure contributes to some 600,000 new cases of intellectual disability every year.

By monitoring the pigeons, Calisi said, health officials can assess neighborhood safety much more quickly and efficiently. “This is a powerful example of how we can use pigeons to monitor the location and prevalence of pollutants,” she said. “We can use these ‘rats with wings’ — which are anything but — to monitor dangers to human health.”

The applications may extend beyond lead monitoring to other heavy metals and prove significant for urban areas around the world. “We’re just getting started,” Calisi said. “This is kind of the beginning of what’s going to be a really big field of study.”