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London’s air pollution is some of, if not the worst, in Europe. The city constantly violates EU laws on pollution, as anyone who has had the displeasure of spending an afternoon on Oxford Street knows – it’s the telltale cough you get at the end of the day. That and the black stuff that comes out of your nose when you blow it.

But it’s important that the levels be measured and monitored – the EU is noted for its love of administration and paperwork – and so some bright spark came up with a brilliant way of monitoring how bad the air is: pigeons.

Yes, pigeons.

Not the kind of pigeons you’re imagining, though. These pigeons are the cream of the crop: racing pigeons.

I’ve had a soft sport for racing pigeons for years now, as the book I wrote for my PhD featured a man fanatical about his racing pigeons, and two of the birds themselves. Though in my book they could talk. I mean, I think they can probably talk anyhow, amongst themselves mostly, but you know, my family are a bit nutty with pets, and to believe they can talk doesn’t really require a stretch of the imagination.

Anyhow, I saw on my Twitter feed that for a week, racing pigeons were being let loose across London with these super cute little backpacks that would monitor how bad the air actually was. This is a great idea for many reasons not the least of which is how utterly adorable the pigeons looked with their backpacks. It’s also great because the birds can get readings from a variety of elevations – ground floor to the top of the building. This aids in the accuracy, you see.

I was delighted that pigeons would finally be given a platform to show off how brilliant they are, and what good friends to us they can be. I waited for pigeons to start trending on Twitter. I expected to see a piece on the evening news about the air quality readings, and maybe a demonstration with their handler showing how one would correctly hold a pigeon, explaining their backpacks maybe, all sorts.

There was nothing. Not a peep.

The researchers who were in charge of the pigeon project put out on their Twitter feed that they were looking for cyclists to help, once the pigeons had been retired – from the project I hasten to add, not life. I was desperate to participate, but not living in London any more and unwilling to try riding a bicycle on its streets were serious detriments. I urged my bike-riding friends in London to take part, but apparently my enthusiasm was not catching.

“But Mom, it’s very important research,” I opined.

“Yes, I’m sure it is. But is that really why you want to get involved?”

“Of course,” I said.

“Nothing to do with the fact that you have your eye on those pigeons? Nothing to do with the fact that you might offer to give them a good home once they’re retired?”

“Well, I do have a very nice balcony at the moment. River view and all.”

“And you do realise that they won’t be giving you a pigeon, to say, put in your bike basket to drive around town with?”

The Mom, as she is wont to do, chipped away at the rather more interesting fantasy I had been building in my mind.

“You always do this!” I cried. “There’s nothing wrong with wanting to take a pigeon for a picnic and a bike ride!”

“No, there’s not, but it might get in the way of the scientific research and if your cough is anything to go by, the air in London is as bad as Beijing’s.”

Which is of course, true. And I can see why the pigeons were returned to their normal lives after three days’ of service. Three days of intense Oxford-Street time and their little pigeon lungs will be so black they won’t be able to fly.

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