Stool Pigeons: Urban Fowl Are Giving Up The Goods On Lead Poisoning

By Nathalie Nayman August 1, 2016
Photo courtesy

If only there was such a thing as an official “Ten Plagues of NYC” list, the feral pigeon will definitely be included on it. It’s astounding how much of a bad rap this unassuming bird, called by some “a flying rat”, has gotten in the urban chronicles. Slightly annoying? Yes. Ugly? Maybe. But if you think of it, the worst thing they can really do is poop on your new outfit—annoying perhaps, but not apocalyptic.

Anyways, if you are one of those people who get freaked out by pigeons, you take a different stance now. Scientists discovered that feral pigeons can, in fact, be quite useful in NYC’s ongoing battle against the lead paint hazard.

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Now, lead poisoning is not a joking matter. It can do really nasty things to your body, from high blood pressure to brain damage (speaking of urban plagues). The tricky thing about the lead is that you can’t see, smell or taste it. And this is where pigeons come into play. You see, pigeons don’t just steal your food, they, as the study puts it, walk the same pavement, breathe the same air, live on the same blocks and, therefore, are exposed to the same levels of lead poisoning as we are. So scientists figured we can use pigeons for detecting the sites of lead toxicity around the city—or, to be precise, use their poop for the betterment of public health.

The researchers collected data (aka, poop) from 825 NYC pigeons with suspected lead poisoning, compared it to the medical screenings of children with high blood-lead levels and voila—the birds and the children affected by the lead reside in the same areas. So, if you live in the Lower Manhattan or the Upper West Side, you might want to have your tap water checked or take other precautions: pigeon poop says you might be exposed to lead.

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Excited? The authors of the pigeon study definitely are. The conclusion of the research says that “the birds can be used to assess the location and extent of lead contamination in any given area in the U.S. and possibly circumvent its negative impacts.”

Collecting the pigeon “data” might prove to be a laborious and unsavory task. But, perhaps, doing a public service will finally win the city pigeons some love from New Yorkers?

Nathalie Nayman

ABOUT THE AUTHOR Nathalie Nayman

ABOUT THE AUTHOR Nathalie Nayman

Nathalie is an international media trooper. After working as a journalist in Moscow, Nathalie participated in local politics and social movements in Cairo where she covered the protests and political upheaval of the Arab Spring. Nathalie is Agorafy's content manager. She produces and oversees unique and creative content for the Newsroom.

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