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School Pigeons

Kids around the World Help Cornell Lab of Ornithology Scientists Answer Questions about Pigeons

ITHACA, N.Y. — What do researchers do when they need scientifically sound data from all over the world? They tap into the enthusiasm and curiosity of children. At least that's what scientists at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology are doing, in order to answer important questions about one of the most common — and most mysterious — birds, pigeons. Their mechanism is Project PigeonWatch, an international research project that enlists the participation of kids the world over.

Cornell Lab scientists are eager to find out why pigeons ("officially" known as Rock Doves) occur in so many different colors. "After many generations, pigeons would be expected to revert back to only one or two color morphs," says Dr. Mindy LaBranche, Project PigeonWatch coordinator and researcher. A stroll along virtually any sidewalk in just about any city in the world reveals that this has not happened.

To help the researchers unravel this ecological mystery, PigeonWatch participants find flocks of feral pigeons (wild populations that have been established from domesticated birds) that will allow close observation. Using an easy-to-follow protocol, participants count the pigeons by color and record the colors of courting pigeons, as often as they wish. They send their data to the Lab, where researchers determine how color morphs are distributed across the world and how color morph influences mate choice.

To acquire the vast quantity of data that PigeonWatch needs — from pigeon flocks all over the world — the Lab drew upon the expertise for which they are becoming increasingly well known: developing protocols that allow interested non-scientists to participate in real, hands-on research ("citizen science"). Because pigeons are so common in cities, the Lab developed this citizen-science project with inner-city kids in mind. By participating in Project PigeonWatch, kids learn to view their local environments in a whole new way, and they take pride in their abilities to contribute to a professional research project, says LaBranche.

Kids enjoy learning the different color morphs, which have unusual-sounding names like "checkers" and "blue-bar" and "spread," and have fun counting how many of each morph make up their flock. They especially delight in "playing detective" to determine who's trying to attract who within the flock. Children have commented, "Scientists are exactly the same as us," and "I think PigeonWatch is really fun and a great learning experience."

Excitement about the project continues to grow. Educators find the project an excellent vehicle for teaching science. One Brooklyn teacher states, "The fact that a fourth-grade class can participate in a national research project is just spectacular. To study pigeons, a bird we see every day yet know very little about, was received by the school, the school district, other teachers, and parents with enthusiasm."

For some inner-city kids, PigeonWatching is their first connection to the natural world. That may be true for their parents, too, which is why the project was developed with an eye toward the parent-child relationship. The project is currently funded through a National Science Foundation (NSF) grant called Parents Involved — Pigeons Everywhere (PIPE), a collaborative effort between the Lab of Ornithology, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and KCET Community Television of Southern California. PIPE is part of NSF's Informal Science Education Program's Parental Involvement initiative, designed to help parents become comfortable with science and to participate alongside their children.

Already, PigeonWatchers have helped LaBranche discover some interesting preliminary findings. One ecological theory suggests that animals living in cool, northern latitudes are likely to be dark in color, since dark colors more readily absorb the sun's warmth. Likewise, individuals in warm, southern climates are likely to be lighter colored and thereby reflect the sun. Thus one might expect to find feral pigeons with large numbers of dark pigeons at cool northern latitudes, and more light morphs in warm regions. In LaBranche's preliminary work, this holds for dark birds in the North.

LaBranche is quick to point out that these are preliminary results and that the sample sizes for her analyses are too small to draw any definite conclusions. For this reason, she is hoping to recruit as many new classrooms, youth groups, zoos, bird clubs, families — as many people as possible — to participate in Project PigeonWatch. Currently, there are about 400 groups conducting the project in 10 different countries, including Canada, Japan, Greece, New Zealand, and Russia, in addition to the United States.

Participants receive a Research Kit with an Instruction Booklet and a Reference Guide, along with full-color posters, and other supplements. They can read about the results in a newsletter produced by the Lab and can contribute their own articles and other work to the newsletter and to the Project PigeonWatch web site. The $15 participation fee helps defray the cost of project materials and research. For an additional $5, a video, "What's So Special About Pigeons?" is also available.

If you, your classroom, or community group would like to get involved in Project PigeonWatch, call the Cornell Lab of Ornithology at (800) 843-2473 in the U.S. and (607) 254-2473 outside the U.S. or e-mail <cornellbirds@cornell.edu>. Or visit Project PigeonWatch at the Lab's web site, <http://birds.cornell.edu>. 

The Cornell Lab of Ornithology is a membership institution interpreting and conserving the earth's biological diversity through research, education, and citizen science focused on birds.