Study Shows Pigeons Learn Words The Same Way As Human Children

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We’ve known pigeons are pretty smart animals for a long time. They were used in World War I and II for carrying messages, the Coast Guard trains them to spot orange life vests in the sea and they have a “honing instinct” that allows them to always find their way home even if they are taken hundreds of miles away blindfolded.

It’s no mystery that these birds are smarter than many other birds, or even many other animals for that matter. So they were the perfect candidates to try out University of Iowa’s new computerized categorizing teaching machine. This touch screen computer shows over 128 black and white photos (two at a time) and the user puts them into one of sixteen categories. A group of pigeons were put through a study similar to this in 1988,  which showed that they had the ability to distinguish between four different categories but this was the first time any pigeon has been put through this kind of extensive testing.

After being taught the different categories and what kind of pictures go into what the pigeons had no problem placing the pictures into their correct categories. They were even able to place pictures that they’ve never seen before into the correct categories.  Ed Wasserman, UI professor of psychology and corresponding author of the study, says the finding suggests a similarity between how pigeons learn the equivalent of words and the way children do.

The researchers at the University of Iowa have created a machine that teaches in a mapping words with categories way that works with the users via stimuli and responses. This machine is so flexible in its teaching method that it can be used with other applications as well. “Ours is a computerized task that can be provided to any animal, it doesn’t have to be pigeons,” says UI psychologist Bob McMurray, another author of the study. “These methods can be used with any type of animal that can interact with a computer screen.”

Children have to learn many words in a short amount of time with no prior knowledge for any of them. It has always been thought that only human children had the capability to master thousands of words like this but studies like this have shown us that maybe the mechanisms that human children use to learn are shared among more species.

If you had a personal pigeon, what would be the first things you’d teach it? 

Happy Discovery

Sources: University of Iowa. “Pigeon power: Study suggests similarity between how pigeons learn the equivalent of words and the way children do.” ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 4 February 2015. <www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2015/02/150204184447.htm>.

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