Pigeons as Good as Doctors at Detecting Breast Cancer, Scientists Discover

Send in e-mailSend in e-mail
Send in e-mailSend in e-mail
This is the apparatus used to train pigeons to distinguish between malignancy and benign breast tissue.
This is the apparatus used to train pigeons to distinguish between malignancy and benign breast tissue.Credit: Richard Levenson and team, PLOS One

Stop scorning pigeons as flying rats. One may save your life one day. Man has been trying to tap pigeon power for eons, sending messages secured to their scaly little legs, racing them, making them work at boring industrial sorting jobs  – and now doctors have discovered that the birds are good at detecting breast cancer.

That must be embarrassing for the radiologists and pathologists who spend years perfecting the art of analyzing breast scans and images. But trained pigeons proved to do just as good a job, reports a team in PLOS One. That although the pigeon brain is about the size of a peanut.

Unlike the pathologists, the pigeons were trained using food reinforcement. They were taught to identify enlarged microscopic pictures of sick tissue (histopathology) and the micro-calcifications typical of breast cancer on mammogram scans.

In both, our beaked brethren did great.

"The birds proved to have a remarkable ability to distinguish benign from malignant human breast histopathology," reports the team, headed by Richard Levenson of the University of California Davis Medical Center, Sacramento.

Note that histological samples typically undergo staining. What we see is a slide with enhanced colors. Like human observers, the pigeons could be foxed by monkeying with the colors and image resolution. Again like us, the pigeons could be trained to overcome such distractions.

A sign asking visitors not to feed the pigeons in London's Trafalgar Square, dating from 2003. Maybe after reading about pigeons' skill at cancer diagnosis, minds will change about their charms.Credit: Reuters

Crucially, say the scientists, with the histological samples, they proved that when looking at novel sets of images, the pigeons could reach generalizations, which is important in the art of diagnostics.

Sadly, the pigeons were less impressive when classifying images of suspicious lumps in the breast. They proved capable only of image memorization but when shown novel examples, say the scientists, they could not generalize. In other words, they couldn't tell which lumps were likely to be cancerous. Stupid birds.  

So are the Mayo Clinic or Ichilov in Tel Aviv and that sort about to start cultivating pigeons to diagnose breast cancer? The upside is they work cheap. 

Probably not. Pigeons have been put to work for man for millennia: dovecotes dating back thousands of years have been found in Israel. A more recent example of pigeon employment was to sort ergot-stricken rye seeds from good ones in 1941. To be clear, man wanted the ergot, not the rye, and the pigeons fortuitously thought the fungal infection revolting. So they would eat the clean seeds and scorn the diseased ones.

But just imagine the lawsuits if the pigeon blows a breast cancer diagnosis. At this point, the pigeons' diagnostic talents are fated to remain theoretical.

Among the hundreds of caves ancient Israelites dug into the soft rock at Maresha-Beit Guvrin are ones with dovecotes.Credit: Zvika Zuk