NYC pigeons are canaries of lead poisoning

by Mary Caperton Morton
Monday, October 17, 2016

New research suggests that pigeons might prove useful for tracking high lead levels in cities. “Pigeons breathe the same air, walk the same sidewalks, and often eat the same food as we do. What if we could use them to monitor possible dangers to our health in the environment, like lead pollution?” said Rebecca Calisi of the University of California, Davis, in a statement.

To study how lead left over from the days of leaded gasoline and lead paint might be clustering in certain neighborhoods at certain times of the year, Calisi and co-author Fayme Cai of Columbia University collected blood samples from 825 sick and injured birds brought to the Wild Bird Fund rehabilitation center between 2010 and 2015, with each bird identified by the zip code where it was found.

They found that lead levels were higher in pigeons from areas of the city that are known by the NYC Department of Health and Mental Hygiene to produce high lead levels in children. The pigeons also showed higher lead levels in summer months, the same seasonal pattern seen in children, the team reported in Chemosphere.

In Europe, pigeons have been used to monitor urban pollution, Calisi said, but to her knowledge no one has previously correlated lead exposure in birds with exposure rates in children. While many urban animals are likely to come into contact with lead, pigeons are especially suited for this kind of study because they are known to spend their entire lives within a radius of a few blocks.

© 2008-2021. All rights reserved. Any copying, redistribution or retransmission of any of the contents of this service without the expressed written permission of the American Geosciences Institute is expressly prohibited. Click here for all copyright requests.