A New Perspective on Pigeons

UC Davis Assistant Professor Rebecca Calisi displays one of her feathered research friends. (David Slipher/UC Davis photo)
UC Davis Assistant Professor Rebecca Calisi displays one of her feathered research friends. (David Slipher/UC Davis photo)

For most of us, pigeons are not significant animals, even though we encounter them daily. The only time I think about pigeons is when they are waiting for crumbs from my meal, or decorating my car after a fresh wash.

UC Davis Assistant Professor of Neurobiology, Physiology and Behavior Rebecca Calisi has a different perspective. Her research, conducted while an assistant professor at Barnard College, Columbia University, suggests that pigeons could be used to monitor possible environmental dangers to our health, specifically lead pollution.

Calisi said that urban pigeons seem particularly suitable for this work because they breathe the same air, walk the same sidewalks and often eat the same food as we do. They also do not fly far, typically spending their lives within an area of a few blocks.

In the study, Calisi and Barnard College undergraduate Fayme Cai found that test pigeons in Manhattan had levels of lead pollution in their blood similar to children who reside in the same neighborhoods. In addition, both groups exhibited rises in blood lead levels during the summer.

While other researchers have used pigeons to monitor different sorts of pollution in European cities, no one to Calisi’s knowledge has linked human lead exposure with that found in pigeons.

Marc Edwards, Virginia Tech Professor and principal investigator of the lead crisis in Flint, Michigan, told The New York Times that he believes the research could provide an unusual, firsthand mapping technique of problem areas. He added that the study provided “new insight into how pervasive these toxins are.”

Calisi’s One Health approach to preventative health isn’t limited to New York City. At UC Davis, she is broadening her research to monitor heavy metals, as well as pesticides and fire retardants in urban areas, with a focus on California cities. She's also broadening students' interest and abilities in research roles as one of the leading women in STEM on our campus.

After reading Calisi’s research, my opinion about pigeons has changed drastically. Rather than seeing pigeons as food thieves or mischievous characters plotting against my clean car, I now think of these animals as potential barometers of environmental health.

Score one for the birds.

Sarah Clark '16 interned with the College of Biological Sciences.

This post originally appeared on the UC Davis One Health Blog.