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Concept: Columbidae


Human-induced rapid environmental change has created a global pandemic of neurobehavioral disorders in which industrial compounds like lead are the root cause. We assessed the feral pigeon (Columba livia) as a lead bioindicator in New York City. We collected blood lead level records from 825 visibly ill or abnormally behaving pigeons from various NYC neighborhoods between 2010 and 2015. We found that blood lead levels were significantly higher during the summer, an effect reported in children. Pigeon blood lead levels were not significantly different between years or among neighborhoods. However, blood lead levels per neighborhood in Manhattan were positively correlated with mean rates of lead in children identified by the NYC Department of Health and Mental Hygiene as having elevated blood lead levels (>10 μg/dl). We provide support for the use of the feral pigeon as a bioindicator of environmental lead contamination for the first time in the U.S. and for the first time anywhere in association with rates of elevated blood lead levels in children. This information has the potential to enable measures to assess, strategize, and potentially circumvent the negative impacts of lead and other environmental contaminants on human and wildlife communities.

Concepts: New York, Columbidae, Queens, Manhattan, Rock Pigeon, Blood lead level, Lead poisoning, New York City


The dodo, Raphus cucullatus, a flightless pigeon endemic to Mauritius, became extinct during the 17(th) century due to anthropogenic activities. Although it was contemporaneous with humans for almost a century, little was recorded about its ecology. Here we present new aspects of the life history of the dodo based on our analysis of its bone histology. We propose that the dodo bred around August and that the rapid growth of the chicks enabled them to reach a robust size before the austral summer or cyclone season. Histological evidence of molting suggests that after summer had passed, molt began in the adults that had just bred; the timing of molt derived from bone histology is also corroborated by historical descriptions of the dodo by mariners. This research represents the only bone histology analysis of the dodo and provides an unprecedented insight into the life history of this iconic bird.

Concepts: Flightless bird, Bird, Rodrigues Solitaire, Mauritius, Raphinae, Columbiformes, Columbidae, Dodo


Learning to read involves the acquisition of letter-sound relationships (i.e., decoding skills) and the ability to visually recognize words (i.e., orthographic knowledge). Although decoding skills are clearly human-unique, given they are seated in language, recent research and theory suggest that orthographic processing may derive from the exaptation or recycling of visual circuits that evolved to recognize everyday objects and shapes in our natural environment. An open question is whether orthographic processing is limited to visual circuits that are similar to our own or a product of plasticity common to many vertebrate visual systems. Here we show that pigeons, organisms that separated from humans more than 300 million y ago, process words orthographically. Specifically, we demonstrate that pigeons trained to discriminate words from nonwords picked up on the orthographic properties that define words and used this knowledge to identify words they had never seen before. In addition, the pigeons were sensitive to the bigram frequencies of words (i.e., the common co-occurrence of certain letter pairs), the edit distance between nonwords and words, and the internal structure of words. Our findings demonstrate that visual systems organizationally distinct from the primate visual system can also be exapted or recycled to process the visual word form.

Concepts: Orthography, Columbidae, Exaptation, Human, Rock Pigeon, Learning, Evolution, Visual system


We investigated suboptimal choice between different work requirements in pigeons (Columba livia), namely the sunk cost effect, an irrational tendency to persist with an initial investment, despite the availability of a better option. Pigeons chose between two keys, one with a fixed work requirement to food of 20 pecks (left key), and the other with a work requirement to food which varied across conditions (center key). On some trials within each session, such choices were preceded by an investment of 35 pecks on the center key, whereas on others they were not. On choice trials preceded by the investment, the pigeons tended to stay and complete the schedule associated with the center key, even when the number of pecks to obtain reward was greater than for the concurrently available left key. This result indicates that pigeons, like humans, commit the sunk cost effect. With higher work requirements, this preference was extended to trials where there was no initial investment, so an overall preference for the key associated with more work was evident, consistent with the work ethic effect. We conclude that a more general work ethic effect is amplified by the effect of the prior investment, that is, the sunk cost effect.

Concepts: Preference, Microeconomics, Columbidae, Rock Pigeon, Psychology of previous investment, Costs, Choice, Sunk costs


We report here the complete genome sequence of a Newcastle disease virus (NDV) isolate, NDV/Altai/pigeon/770/2011, isolated from a rock dove in the Russian Federation. On the basis of phylogenetic analysis, this strain was clustered into genotype VIb class II.

Concepts: Genetics, Columbidae, Gene, Virus, Rock Pigeon, Russia, Genome, DNA


Mechanisms of avian navigation have received considerable attention, but whether different navigational strategies are accompanied by different flight characteristics is unknown. Managing energy expenditure is critical for survival; therefore, understanding how flight characteristics, and hence energy allocation, potentially change with birds' familiarity with a navigational task could provide key insights into the costs of orientation. We addressed this question by examining changes in the wingbeat characteristics and airspeed of homing pigeons (Columba livia) as they learned a homing task. Twenty-one pigeons were released 20 times individually either 3.85 or 7.06 km from home. Birds were equipped with 5 Hz GPS trackers and 200 Hz tri-axial accelerometers. We found that, as the birds' route efficiency increased during the first six releases, their median peak-to-peak dorsal body (DB) acceleration and median DB amplitude also increased. This, in turn, led to higher airspeeds, suggesting that birds fly slower when traversing unfamiliar terrain. By contrast, after route efficiency stabilised, birds exhibited increasing wingbeat frequencies, which did not result in further increases in speed. Overall, higher wind support was also associated with lower wingbeat frequencies and increased DB amplitude. Our study suggests that the cost of early flights from an unfamiliar location may be higher than subsequent flights because of both inefficient routes (increased distance) and lower airspeeds (increased time). Furthermore, the results indicate, for the first time, that birds modulate their wingbeat characteristics as a function of navigational knowledge, and suggest that flight characteristics may be used as ‘signatures’ of birds' route familiarity.

Concepts: Global Positioning System, Sound, Cost, Flying and gliding animals, Wing, Rock Pigeon, Domestic Pigeon, Columbidae


The external appearance of the dodo (Raphus cucullatus, Linnaeus, 1758) has been a source of considerable intrigue, as contemporaneous accounts or depictions are rare. The body mass of the dodo has been particularly contentious, with the flightless pigeon alternatively reconstructed as slim or fat depending upon the skeletal metric used as the basis for mass prediction. Resolving this dichotomy and obtaining a reliable estimate for mass is essential before future analyses regarding dodo life history, physiology or biomechanics can be conducted. Previous mass estimates of the dodo have relied upon predictive equations based upon hind limb dimensions of extant pigeons. Yet the hind limb proportions of dodo have been found to differ considerably from those of their modern relatives, particularly with regards to midshaft diameter. Therefore, application of predictive equations to unusually robust fossil skeletal elements may bias mass estimates. We present a whole-body computed tomography (CT) -based mass estimation technique for application to the dodo. We generate 3D volumetric renders of the articulated skeletons of 20 species of extant pigeons, and wrap minimum-fit ‘convex hulls’ around their bony extremities. Convex hull volume is subsequently regressed against mass to generate predictive models based upon whole skeletons. Our best-performing predictive model is characterized by high correlation coefficients and low mean squared error (a = - 2.31, b = 0.90, r (2) = 0.97, MSE = 0.0046). When applied to articulated composite skeletons of the dodo (National Museums Scotland, NMS.Z.1993.13; Natural History Museum, NHMUK A.9040 and S/1988.50.1), we estimate eviscerated body masses of 8-10.8 kg. When accounting for missing soft tissues, this may equate to live masses of 10.6-14.3 kg. Mass predictions presented here overlap at the lower end of those previously published, and support recent suggestions of a relatively slim dodo. CT-based reconstructions provide a means of objectively estimating mass and body segment properties of extinct species using whole articulated skeletons.

Concepts: Convex hull, Flightless bird, Columbiformes, Raphinae, Estimator, Mass, Columbidae, Dodo


In animal groups where certain individuals have disproportionate influence over collective decisions, the whole group’s performance may suffer if these individuals possess inaccurate information. Whether in such situations leaders can be replaced in their roles by better-informed group mates represents an important question in understanding the adaptive consequences of collective decision-making. Here, we use a clock-shifting procedure to predictably manipulate the directional error in navigational information possessed by established leaders within hierarchically structured flocks of homing pigeons (Columba livia). We demonstrate that in the majority of cases when leaders hold inaccurate information they lose their influence over the flock. In these cases, inaccurate information is filtered out through the rearrangement of hierarchical positions, preventing errors by former leaders from propagating down the hierarchy. Our study demonstrates that flexible decision-making structures can be valuable in situations where ‘bad’ information is introduced by otherwise influential individuals.

Concepts: Homing pigeon, Heterarchy, Maslow's hierarchy of needs, Domestic Pigeon, Columbidae, Rock Pigeon, Hierarchy, Structure


Feral Pigeons have colonised all corners of the Earth, having developed a close association with humans and their activities. The wild ancestor of the Feral Pigeon, the Rock Dove, is a species of rocky habitats, nesting typically on cliff ledges and at the entrance to large caves. This habit would have brought them into close contact with cave-dwelling humans, a relationship usually linked to the development of dwellings in the Neolithic. We show that the association between humans and Rock Doves is an ancient one with its roots in the Palaeolithic and predates the arrival of modern humans into Europe. At Gorham’s Cave, Gibraltar, the Neanderthals exploited Rock Doves for food for a period of over 40 thousand years, the earliest evidence dating to at least 67 thousand years ago. We show that the exploitation was not casual or sporadic, having found repeated evidence of the practice in different, widely spaced, temporal contexts within the cave. Our results point to hitherto unappreciated capacities of the Neanderthals to exploit birds as food resources on a regular basis. More so, they were practising it long before the arrival of modern humans and had therefore invented it independently.

Concepts: Bird, Gorham's Cave, Dodo, Gibraltar, Columba, Neanderthal, Columbidae, Rock Pigeon


Pigeons and doves (Columbiformes) are one of the oldest and most diverse extant lineages of birds. However, the nature and timing of the group’s evolutionary radiation remains poorly resolved, despite recent advances in DNA sequencing and assembly and the growing database of pigeon mitochondrial genomes. One challenge has been to generate comparative data from the large number of extinct pigeon lineages, some of which are morphologically unique and therefore difficult to place in a phylogenetic context.

Concepts: Molecular biology, Raphinae, Evolution, Columbiformes, DNA, Bird, Dodo, Columbidae