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Don’t call pigeons bird-brained. They may not seem like the sharpest of creatures when they’re eating discarded hot dogs on the street corners, but it turns out that pigeons are considered one of the most intelligent birds on Earth. In fact, pigeons can do math, deliver messages, critique art, and tell people apart. They have even passed the mirror test, recognizing their own reflections in the mirror. They are one of only six species to have done this and the only non-mammal.
Researchers at the University of Otago in New Zealand repeated an experiment previously done with rhesus monkeys. Researchers trained the pigeons to rank images of one, two, or three abstract images in numerical order. No matter what color or shape, the pigeons could rank them in numerical order. What’s more, once they learned that two was more than one and three was more than two, they were able to apply the idea to other numbers they hadn’t seen yet, like that eight is more than five. These results have only been seen in humans and monkeys. I wonder if they keep a tally of all of the breadcrumbs they eat in a day.
No doubt you’ve heard of homing pigeons, but those winged messengers aren’t specially trained to find their way home. In fact, all pigeons are gifted with the ability to navigate their way home from hundreds of miles away. No one is quite sure how they find their way; a ten-year study from Oxford University concluded that they follow roads, while others theorize that they use the earth’s magnetic field.
These winged creatures have been delivering messages for thousands of years, including some life-saving missives across enemy lines during wartime. A French pigeon named Cher Ami (“Dear Friend” in English) earned the Croix de Guerre (War Cross) for his work in World War I. Cher Ami was delivering a message across enemy lines when he was shot in the chest and leg, losing much of the leg that had the message attached. He completed the 25-minute journey back home, delivering the message and saving the lives of French soldiers.
A study out of Keio University in Japan found that pigeons can be trained to tell good art from bad. Watercolor and pastel paintings were made by children at a Tokyo school. The paintings were rated as good or bad by the school’s art teacher and ten other adults. Good typically meant that the image was discernable and the subject was clear (if you’ve seen children’s art, you know that this is not always the case). Pigeons were shown the paintings on a computer screen and were rewarded with a treat for pecking at a good painting. There was no treat for pecking at a bad painting. Later, when pigeons were shown new paintings, they were more likely to peck at a good painting than a bad one. They were only able to do this in color; pigeons didn’t do as well when the images were in grayscale. Another set of pigeons were trained to recognize watercolor or pastel paintings.
Even without training, pigeons have a good eye and memory. In fact, they never forget a face. Even if you change your outfit, that pigeon that always sits by your bus stop may recognize you – even feral pigeons that have never been handled or trained by humans. The study was conducted in Paris by two researchers with similar builds who each fed a group of pigeons twice. The first time, one chased the pigeons away and one largely ignored them. The next time the researchers went to feed them, even after changing lab coats and without either researcher chasing the birds, the pigeons avoided the researcher who had chased them and flocked to the one who had ignored the birds during the feeding. Both researchers were female, both wore lab coats that covered most of their bodies, and both were about the same height, so they concluded that the pigeons must be able to distinguish facial features.
(As impressive as the study results are, I can’t stop picturing a woman in a lab coat chasing a flock of pigeons through the streets of Paris. Even in the name of science, I’m sure it looked funny to bystanders.)
Next time you see a lowly pigeon, show it some respect. It is smarter than many mammals, plus it will remember you later. It’s best to leave a good impression on pigeons…just in case they’re so smart that they take over the world one day.