Carl Fuldner and Shane DuBay

The United States’s long history with air pollution reflected in bird plumage

From parrot to peacock, a bird’s feathers say a lot about it, but a new study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences reveals that their plumage also may serve as a record of air pollution. Using a combination of five species taken from museums across the United States’s Rust Belt, scientists were able to use a photographic technique to quantify the amount of carbon stuck to the birds’ feathers. In combination with the data on when the specimen was collected, the results tell the tale of coal use in the United States; rising from the late 1800s and falling during the Great Recession; then increasing again through the middle of the century until legislation in the ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s set limits on air pollution, The Washington Post reports.

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