KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:
Pigeons in London have a bad reputation. One of the city's mayors famously called them flying rats. And many Londoners accuse them of causing pollution with their droppings. But the birds are now being used to measure another kind of pollution - air pollution. NPR's Eleanor Beardsley reports.
(SOUNDBITE OF BUS ENGINE RUNNING)
ELEANOR BEARDSLEY, BYLINE: That's one of London's double-decker buses belching out exhaust fumes during morning rush hour. Andrea Lee works with environmental organization Client Earth. The group has taken the British government to court for what it says are illegal pollution levels in the city.
ANDREA LEE: Mayor of London released a report last year that showed that up to 10,000 early deaths are being caused each year from exposure to air pollution in London alone.
BEARDSLEY: Lee says if people were better informed about the pollution they're breathing, they would pressure the government to do something about it.
Nearby on a windy hill in Regent's Park, the pigeon experiment is underway. It all started with a contest sponsored by the London Design Festival - how to solve a world problem using Twitter. Frenchman Pierre Duquesnoy won the contest and chose pollution.
PIERRE DUQUESNOY: Basically, you know, I realized how important the problem was. But also, I realized that most of the people around me didn't know anything about it.
BEARDSLEY: Duquesnoy says he wanted to better measure pollution and use Twitter to make the results more accessible to the public.
DUQUESNOY: So how would we go, you know, across the city quickly to try to get as much data as possible?
BEARDSLEY: Drones were his first thoughts, but there are restrictions about flying them over London.
DUQUESNOY: But pigeons can fly above London, right. Actually, they live - they are Londoners as well. So, yeah, I thought about using pigeons - and also, not just street pigeons, but racing pigeons because they fly pretty quickly and pretty low.
BEARDSLEY: So the next test was to link up with a pigeon racer and his flock.
BRIAN WOODHOUSE: I'm Brian Woodhouse, a member of the Royal Racing Pigeon Association in Great Britain. I've kept pigeons for about 65 years now.
A little terrier...
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WOODHOUSE: They love pigeons.
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BEARDSLEY: Woodhouse has brought a wicker cage containing seven of his pigeons out to Regent's Park. Birds are being fitted with pollution sensors and released in different parts of the city. The readings are analyzed to help determine the city's air problems. Woodhouse says pigeons were vital carriers of information in times of war, and now they can help with the battle against pollution.
WOODHOUSE: And I like the sound of it. I thought it was an extremely, really good idea, knowing that the pigeons in the first world war and the second world war used to fly with messages - vital messages for our troops and allies.
That's the first wing done.
BEARDSLEY: Woodhouse and Duquesnoy begin attaching tiny harnesses around the pigeons' bodies. The little backpacks weigh less than an ounce and hold a pollution sensor developed by tech startup Plume Labs. Romain Lacombe founded the company.
ROMAIN LACOMBE: These little sensors track your exposure to nitrogen dioxides, to ozone, to these gases that impact your health, and that's the technology we're going to fly on the back of a pigeon through London today.
BEARDSLEY: Londoners can get live pollution readings from the Pigeon Air Patrol through Twitter or on the project's website. Now, the pigeons are suited up and ready to go.
WOODHOUSE: OK. One, two, three - off you go. There it goes.
BEARDSLEY: So now it might be time for Londoners to have more respect for their pigeons. The birds may just be helping improve the quality of the city's air. Eleanor Beardsley, NPR News, London.
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