Pigeons as a tool to detect cancer tissue in humans

Pigeons?? As in the grey street pigeons you see wandering around the city streets? Yes, you heard that right!


Cancer is one of the deadliest causes of death worldwide. It is not only difficult to treat, but also difficult to diagnose. Different types of cancers and tumors are screened differently. Some are easy to detect, such as gastrointestinal tumors; while some are very challenging such as tumors in the lungs. With the advanced technology we have now, diagnosis of cancer cells in humans has been way better than it was a decade ago. However, how can we improve this further?


Some of us might be familiar with the topic of animals being able to detect certain things. For example, dogs are known for their sense of smell and can detect various things from diseases to earthquakes. Animals can act as a tool to help guide us towards diagnosing cancerous cells. One animal that researchers at the University of Iowa looked at was the pigeon.


Image by Chris Wilson (Flickr)

Pigeons are not necessarily known as the brightest animal on this planet. In fact, it’s brain is no bigger than the tip of our index finger! Despite the small brain size, studies have found out that pigeons have the ability to distinguish various facial expressions and the letters of the alphabet. We definitely underestimated their visual memory capacity! This intriguing fact made researchers wonder whether pigeons are able to distinguish normal vs cancerous tissues of the human body.


A number of pigeons were contained and shown 2 different images, one being the normal human tissue and the other being the cancerous tissue. The pigeon has the freedom to press a button corresponding to the picture they think is the cancerous tissue image. Every correct answer they are rewarded a food pellet. Having done numerous repeated trials for each bird, it was concluded that pigeons have about 85% accuracy in diagnosing cancerous human tissue. The birds were not only trained to detect normal vs cancerous tissues, but also cancerous tissues of different sizes and ones without colour (black and white).


Being only published late last year, these results have opened a new window for medical professionals in the hope of improving screening and diagnosis for several different types of cancers. Researchers hope to use these results and translate them into the clinical setting.


Further studies are required to follow up on this discovery. It is fascinating how an animal we see almost every day while walking in the streets has the capability to diagnose cancer!

4 Responses to “Pigeons as a tool to detect cancer tissue in humans”

  1. Jinia says:

    This is the study that you’ve talked about in previous tutes! It is really interesting finding and open the new perspective that pigeons might not only pests, they can be beneficial for us too. Thanks for sharing.

  2. Kimberley Meyers says:

    Despite their generally bad reputation, I love pigeons so it’s great to hear they could help humans in yet another way! It’s amazing how well certain animals can detect diseases and if an animal like the pigeon (which is admittedly not considered the sharpest tool in the shed) can tell the difference between healthy and cancerous tissues I can only imagine the potential in other, more intelligent animals!
    Thanks for the read!

  3. Frances Kusuma says:

    Hi Daniel! Yeah indeed animals, especially dogs, are able to detected multiple diseases. It’s really interesting how different their senses are compared to humans. There’s also not alot of studies focusing on this topic, so hoping to see more research on this area in the future!

  4. Daniel Kelly says:

    I was talking about this just yesterday! It’s very exciting research, I really do think animals are under-utilised in the detection of illnesses and diseases. I remember reading an article a while ago about dogs that could easily detect bowel cancer. Animals have senses that are more finely tuned than ours!