Meet your cancer-detecting friend: a pigeon

As impressed as we are with the intelligence of pigeons, we are equally as impressed that in the world of academia, someone wondered whether they could help detect cancer.

That someone is Edward Watterman at the University of Iowa, who has today released a study showing that pigeons can correctly spot cancerous tumors in microscope images. In fact, the BBC reports, they did just as well as humans.

Each bird was taught to distinguish microscope images of cancerous and non-cancerous tissue, by being rewarded only when a correct answer was provided.

The birds learned to recognise tumours at a range of magnifications and image compression levels, as well as in the absence of colour.

After two weeks of training, the pigeons reached a level of 85% accuracy. Because they successfully identified cancerous tissue from images they had not seen before, the researchers ruled out rote-learning of the images as an explanation.

“The birds were remarkably adept at discriminating between benign and malignant breast cancer slides,” said lead author Prof Richard Levenson, from the University of California, Davis.

The researchers also tried a “flock-sourcing” approach. This involved pooling the decisions from a group of four birds, and led to an impressive 99% accuracy in diagnosis.

“Our results suggest that pigeons can be used as suitable surrogates for human observers in certain medical image perception studies, thus avoiding the need to recruit, pay, and retain clinicians as subjects for relatively mundane tasks,” the researchers said.