The paradox of the sky rat

If you think that pigeons are good only for pooping on your car and messing up the city… well, you should read this blog!

This post is also available in Dutch.

Talking about pigeons might create controversy sometimes. They can be bred as pets and be loyal companions or used for sport purposes. But for most people, pigeons are just sky rats, considered to be stupid and dirty. In the past 30 years, scientists have conducted many studies that prove the cognitive abilities of birds. Here is an overlook of the most fascinating facts about pigeons.

They have a very sophisticated visual system

The pigeons’ head is mostly occupied by their eyes. Those contain one of the most sophisticated retinas among vertebrates. It has 5 different color receptors, while the retina of humans has 3 and those of some other mammals, like mice and rats, has only 2. This means that pigeons can see things that we probably can’t even imagine! Because of their visual abilities, the psychologist B.F. Skinner thought about turning pigeons into weapons, teaching them how to drop bombs during World War II. The idea was to train the birds to steer the missiles by pecking at a target through cables attached to their heads. The funding for the project was revoked in 1944, but several functional prototypes were built.

They can distinguish artistical currents

In 1995, S. Watanabe from Keio University trained eight pigeons in discriminating between Picasso and Monet paintings. In the first part of the training, the animals were taught to discriminate among different pictures of paintings of the two artists. In the second part of the training, the scientists tested if the animals could distinguish between pictures of paintings of the two artists that they had never seen before. Surprisingly, the birds could still discriminate between the two artists. Lastly, the scientists tested if the pigeons could generalize this learning to artworks of other cubist and impressionist artists: astonishingly, they were able to do it. Meaning that, on top of being able to discriminate between complex visual stimuli, these pigeons could categorize and generalize it.

They can count

Comparative studies showed that many animals, from honeybees to monkeys, can discriminate between stimuli that differ in the number of elements that they contain. But acquiring abstract numerical rules (e.g., being able to order stimuli containing an increasing number of objects) is a more complex skill that was thought to be specific to primates. In 2011, D. Scarf from the university of Otago in Dunedin, New Zealand, investigated the ability of acquiring this abstract numerical rule in pigeons. He first presented the birds visual stimuli containing 1, 2 or 3 objects, training them to order the stimuli in ascending order. Then, he presented the birds with a new set of stimuli with 1 to 9 objects, showing that pigeons could count to 9, with a performance equivalent to monkeys.

Despite their reputation, pigeons are interesting animals with fascinating abilities just like other animals that we consider “smarter”, such as dogs or dolphins. Pigeons’ cognitive abilities have been underestimated for decades by many people but it turns out that having a bird’s brain is not that bad after all!

Author: Francesca Abela

Buddy: Kim Beneyton

Editor: Wessel Hieselaar

Translator: Felix Klaassen

Editor Translation: Marlijn ter Bekke

Picture credits: Miha Rekar from Unsplash  

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