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Bird Brains? Pigeons Move Up the Pecking Order

When the pigeon pecks the image correctly a border is displayed and a short tone

This pigeon, named Einstein, correctly pecks the lower number (8) of the pair 8 vs 9. When the pigeon pecks the image correctly a border is displayed and a short tone sounds.

By Damian Scarf

Research into the intellectual abilities of pigeons reveals that the brains of birds, while very different to our own brains, are capable of much more than they’re given credit for.

Damian Scarf is a Research Fellow in the Department of Psychology at the University of Otago, New Zealand.

The full text of this article can be purchased from Informit.

Many people think pigeons are not the sharpest crayons in the box, and I must admit that I shared this view at the beginning of my PhD. But I was wrong.

My research has shown that pigeons are intelligent and, remarkably, can handle numbers in sophisticated and abstract ways, just like humans and other primates. My findings add to a growing body of work showing that you do not need to have hands or a primate-like brain to be intelligent, and add to the evidence showing that there are a number of evolutionary paths that lead to intelligence.

I conducted my PhD under the supervision of Prof Michael Colombo, where pigeons were the standard experimental subjects in the lab. Given their bird-brain reputation, I did everything I could to avoid using pigeons. In fact, the very first experiment I conducted set out to show that chickens, due to the pecking orders they form, were more intelligent than pigeons.

To my surprise the chickens were no better than the pigeons. If anything it appeared that the pigeons had an edge in the intelligence game.

Still not happy with the idea of using pigeons, I turned to magpies. While the magpies proved impossible to train on the touch screen tasks I was using, the pigeons took to pecking the touch screens like a duck takes to water.

Being a scientist, I weighed up the empirical evidence and came to the...

The full text of this article can be purchased from Informit.