The Pigeon Will See You Now


Can pigeons accurately read mammogram results? It’s not a bird-brained idea. Researchers at the University of Iowa found that pigeons may be as accurate as humans at differentiating between healthy and cancerous cells.  Which is pretty impressive when you consider radiologists spend years training to read mammogram images and still sometimes get it wrong.

How do they do it?

Researchers presented eight pigeons with color corrected images from mammograms including 4 cancerous images and four benign images. The pigeons demonstrated a 50/50 accuracy rate at determining or “pecking“ the cancerous image.

And while that isn’t exactly astounding, what is remarkable is that the pigeons demonstrated the ability to learn what they were looking for and increase their accuracy – with a little food reinforcement, of course.

According to lead researcher Professor Edward Wasserman, “Pigeons’ accuracy from day one of training at low magnification increased from 50 percent correct to nearly 85 percent correct at days 13 to 15.”

To make sure the pigeons weren’t memorizing the slides, the researchers switched up the magnification, angles, and even presented them with totally different samples.  The pigeons were still accurate.

And that’s not all...

The birds were also as good as human radiologists at spotting microscopic calcification spots on mammograms that are an early sign of cancer.

Don’t fire your doctor just yet

Even though the pigeons were remarkable at differentiating cancerous pictures from benign pictures and catching early warning signs, they showed difficulty with recognizing suspicious masses on the scans.  In all fairness, this is a very difficult task even for the most trained radiologists.

Like humans, the pigeon’s accuracy was affected by the presence or absence of color in the images and level of image compression.

But what does it mean?

While it’s probably more likely that robots will replace humans in the medical field before pigeons, there may be a place for our favorite feathered friend.

_“I know you didn’t forget that the military relied on me at times to deliver messages in both World Wars!” _

Pigeons could be a quick and cheap addition to help medical staff fine tune imaging technology in high volumes.

“They are willing workers; they don’t need sick days… they are real workaholics,” explains Wasserman.

While it might seem like a stretch, it really isn’t. Biomimetrics and biomimicry already play a large role in medicine.

To learn more about how animals are advancing the medical field, check out 8 Biomimicry Breakthroughs.


Medical Daily, “Mammogram Results Read By Pigeons? Study Finds Birds Have A High Accuracy Rate for Recognizing Malignant Tissue”

The Washington Post, “Can mammogram-reading pigeons help train human radiologists?”