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Pigeons Can Actually Tell If Someone Has Cancer

When it comes to making a lifesaving diagnosis, pigeon may know best.

As in, pigeon pathologist.

That's right, the common pigeon - the humble, blue-collar 'everyman' of the bird world - has an uncanny knack for identifying cancer, according to a recent study in Plos One.

In fact, the study notes, the birds needed just 14 days of training before they were able to spot cancerous tissue just by looking at it - with an accuracy rate of about 85 percent.

That's about on par with their human counterparts who spend years training to spot cancer. And it's straight-up spectacular for an animal whose brain is around the size of your index finger.

Of course, as with any newcomers to a highly specialized field, the pigeons still needed some more extensive training. But not exactly the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine type.

For the study, led by Richard Levenson from the University of California Davis Medical Center and Edward Wasserman from the University of Iowa, 16 pigeons were kept in a big room. They were shown magnified biopsies - some having breast cancer, others not.

Pigeons decided which of the two were the bad biopsies and pecked a touch screen accordingly. Their reward? A 45-milligram pellet of food.

Here's the thing: Although accuracy was a more-than-respectable 85 percent, that number skyrocketed when pigeons got together to make their diagnosis.

Using what could only be called flock mind, pigeons saw their accuracy hit 99 percent.

"The birds' histological accuracy, like that of humans, was modestly affected by the presence or absence of color as well as by degrees of image compression, but these impacts could be ameliorated with further training," the study notes.

And also, for all their clinical prowess, pigeons aren't likely to be dispensing medical advice anytime soon.

"I don't anticipate that pigeons, no matter how good they become at pathology or radiology, will be playing a role in actual patient care - certainly for the foreseeable future," he tells BBC News. "There are just too many regulatory barriers-at least in the West."

But these results might go a long way toward rehabilitating the bird's criminally underrated image - and perhaps cause us to pause before slinging that age-old insult around: bird brain.