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Finally, Pigeons Get a Little Respect

Finally, Pigeons Get a Little Respect

Story at-a-glance -

  • Researchers have discovered pigeons are whizzes at math. In fact, they now share the spotlight with rhesus monkeys as the only non-human species studied to date that can learn abstract mathematical rules
  • The pigeons in the New Zealand study were first taught to order the numbers 1, 2, and 3. Researchers showed images on a touch screen and the birds had to peck at the right images in the right order to earn food treats.
  • After about a year of phase one training, they moved to the second phase in which the pigeons were able to order pairs of images of from 1 to 9 objects. Their performance of the more complex tasks in the second phase was identical to that of rhesus monkeys. Based on their similar abilities, it’s possible pigeons and primates share a common ancestor.
  • Prior studies of bird intelligence have focused on individual pet birds who were well-socialized to humans. The pigeon study is one of the first efforts to work with feral birds in groups.
  • Pigeons are also able to recognize individual humans, probably through facial characteristics. A study in Paris showed that pigeons remembered a specific person who was mean to them, and avoided that person in the future, no matter what she was wearing and regardless of her lack of hostility in subsequent encounters.

By Dr. Becker

I love pigeons, and I am happy to report that researchers have just discovered that pigeons, creatures many people view as a loathsome species, are quite smart.

In fact, when it comes to number crunching, these birds are as skilled as monkeys.

A study published in the December issue of the journal Science reports that pigeons can, for example, distinguish between a group of three objects and a group of four.

They can also order pairs

Most astonishing of all, however, is the discovery that pigeons can learn abstract mathematical rules.

The only other non-humans known to have the same ability are rhesus monkeys.

Pigeons Prompted to Peck in a Particular Progression

Researchers at the University of Otago in New Zealand first taught the pigeons to order the numbers 1, 2 and 3.

To accomplish this, they showed the birds three images on a touch screen.

One image contained one object, the next contained two objects, and the third contained three.

The pigeons were taught to peck the images on the screen in ascending order, and when they got it right, they received food treats.

The researchers took precautions to insure the pigeons couldn't fudge their results, and that they were, indeed, ordering the images based on the number of objects in each.

It took about a year for the researchers to be confident in the abilities of the pigeons.

In the next phase of the experiment, the researchers displayed pairs of images containing from 1 to 9 objects.

The birds had to pair them in ascending order. For example, if they were shown a pair of images containing 3 objects, and a pair with 9 objects, they had to peck the pair of 3-object images first, followed by the pair with the higher number of objects.

According to Damian Scarf, lead author of the study:

"Remarkably, the pigeons were able to respond to these novel pairs correctly. In addition, their performance was indistinguishable from that of two rhesus monkeys that had been previously trained on this task."

The Einsteins of the Bird World?

Given the recent discovery that pigeons are whizzes at math, some scientists are now asking whether they might be smarter in general than other birds.

Not according to Dr. Scarf:

"It would be fair to say that, even among birds, pigeons are not thought to be the sharpest crayon in the box. I think that this ability may be widespread among birds. There is already clear evidence that it is widespread among primates."

Prior studies on the intelligence of birds focused on individual pets who were highly socialized to humans. uses the example of Alex, an African grey pet parrot. Alex was able to talk and count, displayed the intelligence of a 5 year-old (human), and the emotional development of a 2 year-old toddler.

Parrots are often thought to simply mimic people when they talk, but Alex created his own words. For example, he was familiar with both bananas and cherries and referred to them by those names. However, when presented with a juicy red apple for the first time, Alex coined it a 'banerry.' Apparently, the apple seemed like a cross between a banana and cherries to Alex, so his word for a red apple became 'banerry'.

Per, when it came to math, "... one of Alex's greatest feats was that he understood a numerical concept akin to zero, which is an abstract notion that people don't typically understand until age three or four.”

But Why Pigeons and Monkeys?

Dr. Scarf and his research colleagues are especially intrigued by the fact that primates and birds seem to share the same uncommon ability to learn rules about numbers.

They theorize either the two species developed their math competence separately, or it was already present in the last common ancestor they shared. Incredibly, the last common ancestor pigeons and primates could have shared probably lived some 300 million years ago, before dinosaurs and mammals.

Of course, if math skills were derived from a long ago common ancestor of birds and monkeys, it should mean many other animals have the same ability. Studies haven't yet found evidence of that.

Pigeons Also Have Another Skill You Might Want to Know About

In case you're in the habit of disrespecting pigeons when you see them, you should know they remember not only the insult, but the person who delivered it.

Incredibly, new research out of France proves pigeons are able to recognize individual people, most likely by their facial characteristics.

The study, which was presented last July at the annual conference of the Society for Experimental Biology, involved city dwelling, feral pigeons that had never been handled by humans.

Two researchers went to a park in Paris and fed pigeons. The two were of similar build and skin tone, wearing different colored lab coats.

One of the researchers ignored the pigeons as they ate. The second individual was hostile toward the birds and chased them away.

In a second feeding session, neither feeder chased the pigeons away, but the birds entirely avoided the previously hostile feeder.

The experiment, minus the initial hostility toward the pigeons, was repeated again and again with the same result – the birds steadfastly avoided the previously hostile feeder. Even when the researchers attempted to confuse the birds by swapping lab coats, the pigeons still knew who was who and refused to give the mean feeder the time of day.

According to

"It is very likely that the pigeons recognised the researchers by their faces, since the individuals were both female and of a similar age, build and skin colour," says Dr. Dalila Bovet a co-author of this work from the University of Paris Ouest Nanterre La Défense. "Interestingly, the pigeons, without training, spontaneously used the most relevant characteristics of the individuals (probably facial traits), instead of the lab coats that covered 90% of the body."

Now, while there's absolutely no scientific evidence to suggest pigeons pay back mean humans by dropping huge poop bombs on them during flyovers... it is something to think about...