Mighty morphin' pigeon watchers learn science in the city

Inner city schoolchildren all over North America soon will be learning from the pigeons under their feet. Project PigeonWatch, the youth science-education experiment that teaches professional scientists the evolutionary advantage of birds' color morphs, is hitting the streets.

Pilot tests by the Cornell University Laboratory of Ornithology showed that the concept can fly: Inner city schoolchildren can collect scientifically valuable data in New York City, Chicago, Denver and Washington, D.C. Now the project, which is supported by National Science Foundation (NSF) and participants' fees, is seeking thousands more data points to answer a question that has long puzzled ornithologists: How come pigeons come in so many colors? "In the wild, all individuals of a particular species look pretty much the same. Robins have grey backs and red-orange breasts, and crows are all black," said Martha Fischer, an educator at the ornithology lab. "But a funny thing happened to Columba livia, as common city pigeon is known in scientific terms, on the way to the city." The ancestors of all city pigeons are wild rock doves from the cliffs and rocky ledges of Africa, Asia, Europe and the Middle East, Fischer explained. On the cliffs of the old country, rock doves were (and still are) a single color type or morph: a sort of blue-black and gray that pigeon fanciers call blue-bar.

"Over the centuries, rock doves were selectively bred by humans for their colors, their homing instincts or their racing abilities," Fischer said. "They were still Columba livia, but they showed remarkable color variation, just like cats and dogs. Some captive rock doves escaped to form the feral pigeon flocks we see today. They survive very well in the city, where predators are few and food is plentiful. What we don't understand is why, now that common pigeons are no longer selectively bred, do they continue to exist in so many color morphs?"

To answer that question, hundreds of professional ornithologists could count colored pigeons in every city in North America, documenting the birds' feeding and courtship behavior. Instead, scientists are calling on schoolchildren in an innovative, mutual effort to educate one another.

"Project PigeonWatch is an ideal activity for children in grades four through eight in after-school programs, urban 4-H clubs, Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts, weekend museum programs, science clubs and similar programs," said John Fitzpatrick, the Louis Agassiz Fuertes Director of the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology. "The children will build their powers of observation, learn careful note-taking, practice mathematics and writing skills, and most importantly, learn more about the process of science.

"We'll finally get the answers to this color morph puzzle," Fitzpatrick added, "and we'll certainly learn a lot about relationships between people and pigeons." Two other National Science Experiments done by the Cornell laboratory for the NSF clearly demonstrate that volunteer- based programs can collect large amounts of bird information, Fitzpatrick noted. More than 8,000 people contributed observations to the Seed Preference Test. Data collected by 1,500 participants in Project Tanager, which shed light on the habitat requirements of four tanager species in North America, would have cost millions of dollars if they were gathered by traditional methods.

Participants in Project PigeonWatch receive a research packet, including straightforward instructions, a mini-poster showing seven pigeon color morphs, a tally sheet and data forms to return to the Laboratory of Ornithology. They also receive a one-year subscription to Birdscope, the lab's newsletter, which reports results of Project PigeonWatch and other volunteer-based programs. Participation fees ranging from $7 to $15 help cover costs of the project.

"The study of urban pigeons is sure to raise new questions," Fischer said. "For example, will other birds that live in close association with humans become as variable in their appearance as pigeons? Will the introduction of peregrine falcons in cities reduce color variation in pigeons? Will global climate changes affect the pigeons? "We need lots of data from lots of different places, in the United States, in Canada and in Mexico," she said. "Maybe then we'll be able to put this puzzle together."


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