Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

How Backpack-Wearing Pigeons Can Help London Curb Pollution

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

How Backpack-Wearing Pigeons Can Help London Curb Pollution

Article excerpt

That most urban of birds is now at work measuring the air quality over the famously smoky city of London.

Engineers at technology company Plume Labs trained 10 racing pigeons to wear tiny, specially designed backpacks full of equipment for measuring nitrogen dioxide and ozone. They are carefully attended by a veterinarian and trained to fly at strategic heights over London during rush hour. Perhaps unsurprisingly, they tweet results of the air tests upon request.

Introducing the #PigeonAir patrol team: Norbert, Coco and Julius. At your service! Pigeon Air Patrol (@PigeonAir) March 14, 2016

The three-day campaign - ending Wednesday - asks Londoners to help gather detailed, on-the-go, air-quality information by wearing similar sensing technology after the pigeons finish their rounds.

Pigeons fighting pollution: Simply tweet your London area to @PigeonAir & we'll tell you how toxic it is! #PigeonAir Pigeon Air Patrol (@PigeonAir) March 14, 2016

Dr. Edward Wasserman, who has researched pigeons extensively at the Comparative Cognition Laboratory at the University of Iowa, says this publicity stunt is hardly the most innovative use of pigeons, which have been exploited for their homing abilities for thousands of years.

"Pigeons have, after all, been shown to be able to recognize individual human faces and discriminate among pieces of art, Monet versus Picasso," Dr. Wasserman says. "In terms of keeping them in laboratories, they're great. They can do it all."

He says the pigeon's lab career began after World War II, when psychologist B.F. Skinner trained the birds to guide missiles toward enemy ships. In London, some medical labs have used them to carry blood samples back and forth from the hospital. He has studied their ability to read medical reports, which shows they can memorize how different images ought to look and sometimes tell the difference between them, according to NBC News. …

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