Pigeons Might Be Smarter Than We Thought

The unassuming birds might learn concepts the same way little kids do, a small study finds.

It’s no secret there are some smart bird species out there. Crows are good with human? faces, domestic chickens count numbers from left to right, and cockatoos can pick locks. Bowerbirds even have a knack for sculpture. Now, the pantheon of avian DaVincis might need to make room for one more: a new study suggests pigeons can learn to recognize and categorize objects.

Scientists at the University of Iowa taught three pigeons to place 128 different objects into one of 16 categories: car, hat, cracker, duck, baby, key, bottle, cake, fish, flower, pen, phone, dog, plan, shoe, or tree. For example, the birds learned to associate photos of both sneakers and stilettos with the a general symbol for “shoe,” and to group a rose and a lily with the symbol for “flower.” 

In each test, the birds were shown an object, then offered the choice to peck one of two symbols—one correct, the other not. If they chose right, the subject received a treat. The pigeons, whose brains are no bigger than the tip of your index finger, matched photos to their correct categories 65 to 80 percent of the time. Bird “45W” was “the clear star,” the authors report in Cognition, successfully matching 127 of the 128 photographs. 

 Psychologist and co-author Ed Wasserman says we might gain insight into human learning by way of the differences—and similarities. In this case, says Wasserman, forming new associations—this photo belongs with this symbol, not that one—is just like how children learn the meanings of words. Both these birds and kids in general, says Wasserman, “have to learn to associate arbitrary words with actual objects.”

With a sample size so small, it’s difficult to say whether all pigeons have this ability, or Wasserman and his team was working with three exceptional students. But the results are intriguing, and at the very least suggest that these “rats with wings” deserve more respect than they’re usually accorded