Pigeons: These Unremarkable Birds Are Remarkably Smart


Story at-a-glance -

  • A newly published study conducted by psychologists at the University of Iowa concludes pigeons have the ability to make extremely intelligent choices, and have highly evolved problem-solving skills.
  • In a classic test of basic intelligence known as the “string task,” pigeons selected the correct string (the one attached to food treats) up to 90 percent of the time. Even more remarkable? The pigeons aced the test “virtually” using a computer touch screen.
  • According to the lead study author, “The pigeons proved that they could indeed learn this task with a variety of different string configurations—even those that involved crossed strings, the most difficult of all configurations to learn with real strings.”

By Dr. Becker

Unlike many people who view pigeons as pervasive flying poop machines, I really love them. Last year, I wrote about a study that proved pigeons are able to learn abstract mathematical rules, and in fact are the only non-humans other than rhesus monkeys with the ability.

Now a newly published study1 by psychologists at the University of Iowa suggests pigeons are “capable of making highly intelligent choices, sometimes with problem-solving skills to match.”

So the next time you’re cursing the constant cooing overhead or stepping gingerly around copious piles of pigeon poo, it might help to remember you’re not dealing with just any old bird. As it turns out, pigeons may be the rocket scientists of the avian world.

Pigeons Ace the 'String Task' Up to 90 Percent of the Time

Edward Wasserman, a professor of experimental psychology at UI, and colleagues gave laboratory pigeons what is known as the “string task,” which is a well-recognized test of basic intelligence. It involves attaching a food treat to one of two strings to judge whether study participants have the smarts to access the treat by pulling on the correct string.

In Wasserman’s experiment, however, the strings and treat bowls (one empty, one full) were virtual – they were on a computer touch screen. The image depicted the bowls at one end of each string, and at the other end were square buttons. The pigeons were placed in front of the screens, and each time they pecked the correct button, the image of the full bowl moved closer, until ultimately they were rewarded with a real food treat.

In many cases, the pigeons appeared to be scanning the length of the string as they looked up at the full bowl and pecked at the correct button.

Researchers concluded the pigeons chose the correct string between 74 and 90 percent of the time using three variations of the task. According to study authors, “These results… demonstrate that pigeons can concurrently contend with a broad range of demanding patterned-string problems, thereby eliminating many alternative interpretations of their behavior.”