Pigeons to the rescue on air pollution

I’m not sure if it’s still there, but in the Imperial War Museum there used to be an exhibit of a stuffed pigeon descending from a parachute.

I always like the surreal image of a parachuting bird, but there was a logic to it. They were carrier pigeons and trained to fly home. During the Second World War the British would strap them into little pouches, fly them over occupied France and drop them out of the plane. The idea was that French patriots could fill in an attached questionnaire, roll it up into the little leg canister and release the bird. It was a novel way to gather intelligence, though rather unfortunate for the pigeons – many of them were never found, and therefore never released from their holders. The Germans also found out about it and had trained hawks stationed near the English channel to intercept pigeons on their way home.

Anyway, I was reminded of this bit of historical trivia by this image:

pigeon backpack

That’s not a parachute, as it happens, but a little pigeon backpack. It contains sensors and a GPS chip, and it’s measuring the air quality over London. It’s being modeled by a member of the Pigeon Air Patrol, which launched this week to highlight air pollution in the capital.

Over the coming weeks humans will also be recruited and given similar devices, gathering information from cyclists and walkers in London.

The pigeons are more of an awareness raising stunt that a new source of pollution monitoring, but the issue is clearly on the agenda, with the Prime Minister questioned about it in Parliament yesterday. It’s good to see it getting some attention, as it’s been an overlooked issue for a long time – despite accounting for 5% of premature deaths in the UK.

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