By Dr. Becker
Pigeons are often regarded as dirty and unintelligent, akin to “flying rats” (another misunderstood species). In reality, these intelligent birds have been contributing to humankind for centuries, and probably far longer.
Genghis Khan is said to have been the first to recognize pigeons’ expert homing abilities (the ability to find its way home over very long distances) and used them to send messages back and forth while on the battlefield.1
In London, meanwhile, a “pigeon air patrol” was used to monitor levels of air pollution. Technology company Plume Labs fitted 10 racing pigeons with tiny backpacks with pollution sensors.
The birds were trained to fly at certain heights over the city and were released during rush hour for three days, measuring levels of pollutants like nitrogen dioxide, volatile compounds and ozone as they soared through the skies.
The sensors then reported back the level of air pollution, from moderate to extreme, in certain areas of the city.
For those wondering whether this harms the pigeons, the backpacks were reportedly “as light as a feather” (about 25 grams each), and the birds’ health was overseen by a veterinarian.
The pigeon air patrol was only active for a three-day test period, which means the birds were soon back with their owners, flying as usual. Plume Labs also intends to attach similar sensors to human volunteers willing to help measure and track London’s air quality.
The Remarkable Ways Pigeons Help People
Monitoring air quality is only one of pigeons’ contributions to society. During World War II, the birds guided missiles toward enemy ships and, in London, pigeons were used to carry blood samples between medical labs and hospitals.2 As The Christian Science Monitor reported:
“This is hardly the first time pigeons have donned a uniform in the service of mankind.
They carried messages across battle lines for the British forces during World War I, and Paul Julius Reuter, founder of the news agency of that name, used their carrier abilities to transmit stock information between Brussels and Aachen before the telegraph become reliably available.”
More recently, research published in PLOS One3 found that the birds, which share many visual system properties with humans and have impressive visual skills, decipher medical images as well as radiologists.
Remarkably, pigeons trained to read medical images were able to accurately distinguish between digitized microscope slides and mammograms showing normal or cancerous breast tissue.
In two experiments, the pigeons had 90 percent and 99 percent accuracy, rivaling that of radiologists with extensive medical training.4
The pigeons proved to be such accurate pathologists that the researchers suggested the birds may be reliable stand-ins for humans to test new types of imagery or technology, in which large numbers of images must be viewed for refinement purposes (although this raises ethical considerations).
How Smart Are Pigeons?
Many people are surprised to learn that birds are remarkably intelligent, and pigeons are no exception.
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 in the most difficult of configurations — crossed strings.
Pigeons are also excellent learners, possessing the ability to learn abstract mathematical rules, a skill thought to be shared only with humans and rhesus monkeys. They can also recall more than 1,800 images and can detect or discriminate:5
✓ Foreground from background
✓ Misshapen pharmaceutical capsules
✓ Letters of the alphabet
✓ Basic object categories such as cats, flowers, cars and chairs
✓ Identities and emotional expressions of human faces
✓ Paintings by Monet versus Picasso
Pigeon researcher Edward Wasserman, Ph.D., of the Comparative Cognition Laboratory at the University of Iowa explained to Discovery News:6
"Most people would credit pigeons with little intelligence, but we've been studying them for 40 years and they seem to engage in highly complex visual tasks that require a considerable amount of learning. We need a dose of humility in our evaluation of other species."
Why Do People Loathe Pigeons?
Pigeons, with their high level of intelligence and contributions to research and messaging, to name a few, don’t deserve to be saddled with the reputation of a pest. However, city goers have long loathed these otherwise ordinary birds. Why?
Research by sociologist Colin Jerolmack, Ph.D., reveals a novel reason. It’s not that they splatter the ground with droppings, disturb the peace with their vocalizations or even their potential to spread disease (which is actually pretty miniscule in normal people-pigeon interactions).
The reason why people dislike pigeons is because, Jerolmack suggests, they break through our “imaginative geography” of cities. This imaginative geography is the proverbial line between clean and ordered civilization and the untamed wild. The Audubon reported:7
“Pigeons cross those boundaries frequently and visibly, inhabiting the spaces that we think of as our own. ‘More than most other urban animals, they prefer concrete and sidewalks and ledges over grass and shrubs,’ Jerolmack says. ‘Rats will retreat to the sewers and bushes, and remain out of view, but pigeons invade the spaces that we’ve designated for people.’
By upsetting our imaginitive geography, pigeons show us that cities are not as subdued and scrubbed of nature as we think they should be.”