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GPS-enabled birds: Pollution fighters or animal cruelty?

SAN JOSE, Calif.--The roughly 20 pigeons released Tuesday from the roof of the San Jose Museum of Art weren't ordinary, sidewalk food-pecking birds. Each was strapped with a special backpack containing a GPS device, GSM unit with small antennas, temperature sensor, pollution sensor and more.

Beatriz da Costa, a professor at the University of California, Irvine, hopes to gather pollution data from the pigeons that fly up to 300 feet with her project called "PigeonBlog." The study is not scientific, nor does it claim to be. Two students who specialize in computer and engineering studies have assisted her in this project, which declares to be more of a "playful approach" in an effort to address a serious topic.


But it wasn't PETA's (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) idea of fun. Members of the group obstructed the pigeon release, forcing some confusion about its location. Most of the spectators below had no clue what was happening.

To some, the experiment is a pollution study with an artistic twist. For her part, da Costa says she's been assured that the pigeons aren't experiencing stress in their short flight. To others, however, it's animal cruelty. To get some perspective on the issue, I decided to put myself in a pigeon's position.

Your typical Rock Dove Columba Livia (the pigeon used by PigeonBlog)--known for its amazing capability to find its way home--can weigh anywhere from 180 to 355 grams. Each of the backpacks weighs about 40 grams. If you take the puniest pigeon of the bunch and assume it's 180 grams, it would be carrying 22 percent, or a little less than a quarter of its weight.

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Video: Pigeons take flight with GPS
Is that a cell phone strapped to that pigeon's back?

Now, I weigh about 120 pounds, and I would say my backpack in college weighed about 30 pounds. With that, I was carrying 25 percent of my weight. I certainly wasn't flapping my wings to get anywhere, but I did manage to "fly" just fine up those Berkeley hills to class.

I may not be a pigeon or a scientific artist, but I do think the experiment has some good findings. By using the PigeonBlog, da Costa and her team have found some good data on pollution in localized areas. Pigeons have also been used as spies (with cameras attached to them) since wartime, something that actually inspired da Costa to use pigeons in the first place. Perhaps to take it a step further, da Costa or maybe even PETA should do an actual stress test on the pigeons used in flight. That may help solve the problem, and truly provide a lesson learned by all parties involved.

Click here for more details on the PigeonBlog air pollution data-gathering project.