The Sooty Feathers of Birds Reveal Record of Air Pollution

A new study reveals impressive records or air pollution by just looking at the sooty feathers of birds. Scientists have recently analyzed a collection of dead birds covered in soot. They believe that the results of their research might unveil important information related to air pollution.

Carl Fuldner and Shane DuBay are graduate students from the University of Chicago. They published the new study this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The study indicates that the soot they discovered on the feathers of horned larks from a museum collection can help them in a climate change-related study. They will use the data to trace back the amounts of black carbon that was released in the air over time.

Fuldner and DuBay looked at over 1000 larks that were gathered over the last 135 years. Hence, they managed to establish and quantify which are the effects of airborne soot in some cities from the US Rust Belt. The list of cities includes Chicago, Pittsburgh, and Detroit.

DuBay indicates that nowadays the air in Chicago seems to be clean. However, in the past, the skies looked just like those of Delhi and Beijing today. The sky was covered in smog, and the air pollution levels were very high. Scientists used museum collections of birds to reconstruct the history of air pollution in different cities in the US.

The birds they have analyzed indicated that soot remained stuck to their feathers just like we see dust clinging to a feather duster. Researchers established horned larks are the perfect candidates for this type of study. The explanation relies on the fact that they change their feathers, growing a new set annually. Hence, this indicates that the soot in their feathers had been accumulating for a single year.

The sooty feathers of birds carried with them the history of air pollution

Fuldner and DuBay worked together to measure the alternation in sootiness from birds’ feathers throughout the study. They managed to create a method to account for the change using photography to examine birds. These two researchers chose four other species aside from larks that also live in the heartland of the US. They decided to photograph the birds and then measure the reflected light off their feathers.

DuBay and Fuldner documented how the light bounced off those birds’ feathers. Then, they connected the data obtained with the information related to years when every bird was collected. The next thing researchers did was to analyze the social history of urban air pollution. Fuldner claims that the changes they photographed in the sooty feathers of birds became a national movement to address the air pollution problem.

By looking at air pollution records, they were able to figure out how particular policy approaches worked. Furthermore, researchers confess that they are surprised by the precision they obtained after conducting the study. DuBay says that the soot they revealed on the birds’ feathers indicates the continuous use of coal over a certain time span. Furthermore, they were even able to establish that during the Great Depression, the amount of black carbon dropped due to the fact that coal consumption also decreased.

A horned lark in the sand

The feathers of horned larks were covered in soot, indicating high levels of black carbon in the air, a few years ago.

Air pollution did not only affect these birds

The new study highlights the fact that black carbon levels are strongly related to coal consumption until the middle of the 20th century. After that period, the level of soot slowly declined. However, the use of coal continued. The study indicates that this decline represents the result of better burning efficiencies instead of emissions control. Hence, researchers argue that by examining atmospheric black carbon, they will be able to study climate change in detail.

DuBay claims that black carbon represents one of the main factors that trigger global warming. Hence, scientists worry because the black carbon levels appear to be even worse than they had previously thought. Researchers hope that their air pollution models would help atmospheric and climate researchers better understand the air pollution effects on climate.

Besides the environmental implications of their new study, their research also underlines the importance of museum collections. Without them, their study would not have existed, or it would have been harder for them to make the discoveries they did in a different way. Therefore, researchers will inspire other scientists to explore museum collections for different purposes in their future studies, addressing present or future environmental concerns.

The study reveals how natural history collections can be extremely useful when it comes to climate studies. The two researchers highlighted the value of these collections that helped them understand the effect of human-made activities on the environment.

Horned larks had soot in their feathers

It is kind of sad that the soot absorbed into birds’ feathers on their bellies tell the story of air pollution. Maybe this study will help us open our eyes and realize that we are doing more bad than good. Instead of helping, we affect innocent creatures. The burn of fossil fuel, the emissions of carbon dioxide and methane gas have been affecting several special, the environment included.

The sooty feathers of birds from the museum collections show how pollution affected the environment during the last 135 years. The development of several industries and the progress we obtained appears to determine an increased use of black carbon.

Museum curators from the industrial Midwest museum noticed that certain bird specimens were dirtier compared to others. Carbon soot does not simply rub off the birds’ feathers. Hence, specialists noticed that the feathers would leave some oily black smudges on their white gloves. DuBay indicates that their approach is old and new at the same time.

Other scientists have previously analyzed natural history museum collections, measuring the thinness of eagle eggshells. They used to analysis to determine their exposure poisons like DDT. The surprising thing about the new study is that the evidence of pollution came first. Basically, those songbirds’ feathers acted like some feather dusters, absorbing pollution.

Summing up

The new study suggests that the sooty feathers of birds from museum collections stand as evidence for the level of black carbon from the past. These poor creatures were affected in the last 135 years by air pollution. Hence, we should start cutting down on burning fossil fuels. Otherwise, the level of air pollution will become incredibly higher.

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William E. Eubanks

I'm one of the main writers on the site; mostly dealing with environmental news and ways to live green. My goal is to educate others about this great planet, and the ways we can help to protect it.

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