Pigeons’ Brains Work Kind of Like Ours

A small study showed impressive categorizing abilities in three pigeons

Otto Plantema/ Buiten-beeld/Minden Pictures/Corbis

The unassuming pigeon, a city denizen so common some call them "rats with wings," really deserves more respect. These birds can be beautiful (just ask the competitors at the National Pigeon Association's 93rd annual Grand National Pigeon Show), useful messengers and surprisingly agile fliers. They are are also smarter than many might think, according to new research out of the University of Iowa. Pigeons can learn to recognize and categorize objects much the way human toddlers do, reports a university news release.

The researchers showed three pigeons photographs of 128 objects that all fell into one of 16 categories: baby, bottle, cake, car, cracker, dog, duck, fish, flower, hat, key, pen, phone, plan, shoe or tree. Each pigeon was presented with a photo and the ability to peck one of two symbols. One represented the correct category and the other was randomly chosen from the 15 remaining categories. A correct peck earned a reward. Not only did the pigeons learn how to categorize the images, but they were also able to place four new photos in the right group. The results were published in the journal Cognition.

“Unlike prior attempts to teach words to primates, dogs, and parrots, we used neither elaborate shaping methods nor social cues,” says one of the study’s authors, Ed Wasserman. “And our pigeons were trained on all 16 categories simultaneously, a much closer analog of how children learn words and categories.”

The method is very similar to ways that researchers study language learning in toddlers. Of course, many studies have shown that calling someone a "bird brain" isn’t so insulting: Birds are quite good at differentiating complex objects, using tools, working together in a group and even identifying the beat in a song. But bird intelligence can only go so far. Apparently, pigeons’ human-toddler smarts doesn’t keep the unwary ones from the grasping jaws of southwestern France’s pigeon-catching catfish.

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