Often described as ‘rats with wings’, pigeons seem to be mindless creatures that go through the survival circle of birth, feeding, and reproduction without thought or awareness.
However, pigeons are actually far smarter than we give them credit for.
After the Second World War there was a rise in interest in comparative psychology. In other words, how and why humans behaved as they do.
Following closely behind that trend was interest in animal behaviour.
Animals of all kinds, including pigeons, were put to the test to see if they had what is considered true intelligence and how much of it.
When testing pigeons they found many interesting things which indicate that pigeons are actually surprisingly intelligent; they can multi-task, they can learn things and make choices, they can recognize other pigeons and are capable of discrimination, they can tell the time and remember things!
Pigeons can multi-task
They can observe different things and gain information about what is happening around them without concentrating on solely one thing at a time.
This is much like what we call multi-tasking in humans; like listening to the radio and cooking at the same time.
Pigeons do in fact have split brains.
With eyes on either side of their heads, they can shut down one side of their brains and nap, while the other eye stays open and alert for danger.
Pigeons can acquire knowledge
Pigeons have learning abilities.
They can be taught to do different tasks outside of what they instinctively know.
Not only that, but they can be trained to do things (such as sit on your shoulder) in what we would see as a logical or methodical sequence.
They can do this even when the training sequence is changed to another routine.
Pigeons can make choices
They can learn to make the appropriate response to a simple kind of stimulus, but also learn not to respond to a different stimulus.
They can also learn to make responses to various other stimuli. In other words, they can recognise things and make choices.
Pigeons can recognise other pigeons
Like humans, they can recognise behaviour patterns.
Again, like humans, they can tailor their responses to the perceived behaviour of other pigeons.
Humans respond differently to others according to the situation and the comportment of other people. Pigeons have the same ability.
Pigeons can discriminate
They can learn to make choices on how they react to certain things.
On being shown different kinds of objects they can learn to discriminate between them and what is the correct response to make.
This is very much like the way children learn about the world around them, what to touch and what not to.
Pigeons understand words
Pigeons can recognise all the letters of the alphabet.
A study in 2016 showed that not only could pigeons distinguish between a random string of letters and actual words.
They can also be trained to learn spoken words.
Pigeons can tell the time
They can also calculate both time and space, which helps them in flight.
Experiments have shown that they can judge distances and the approximate time it takes to arrive at that destination.
Pigeons process the information the same as humans but lack the part of the brain that we humans use. No one knows how they do this.
Pigeons can remember things
It has also been found that pigeons have very good memories. They can retain the memory of visual images like pictures or photographs for a long time.
This ability can cover hundreds of images over years of time span. They can even recognise the difference between two human figures in a photograph and also split them in categories.
That might explain why pigeons are ace navigators.
One theory is that they can memorise the terrain they fly over, noting landmarks, both natural and man-made and construct maps in their minds.
Researchers in Japan found that pigeons can distinguish between paintings by famous artists. They can use shapes and colours as visual clues.
Researchers into animal intelligence conducted tests with pigeons in 1981 and they use what is known as the mirror test.
Pigeons were trained to look into a mirror to find a response key, which was behind them.
So, they had to turn around and find the correct key to peck. The reward for getting it right was some food.
The next thing the researchers did was place dots on the pigeon’s feathers, but without any mirrors and again, the pigeon was rewarded with food when it touched the correct dot.
Taking it a step further they placed one dot on a pigeon’s body but covered it up.
Without the mirror the pigeon didn’t react, but once the mirror was replaced the pigeon tried to find and peck the covered up dot.
The point of the experiments was to see if pigeons were ‘self-aware’. The definition of self-awareness means an awareness of one’s own personality or individuality.
Although this proved that pigeons were self-aware to the researchers’ satisfaction, their findings were deputed by the scientific community on the grounds the pigeons used had to be trained to react to the mirror.
They argued that the pigeons didn’t exhibit spontaneous behaviour and therefore the results couldn’t be counted as an indication of self-awareness.
Only if the pigeons behaved in the same manner without training, would the tests be valid.
Although the mirror test studies have been replicated since, with the same results, to many animal behaviourists, the results still aren’t good enough.
Some fun facts about pigeon intelligence
- Pigeons learn the same way as children.
- In cities, they have been seen to ride the subways and always get off at the same stop.
- They can recognize people, both good and bad, despite disguises.
- They have mathematical abilities.
- One researcher taught his pigeons to play ping pong.
Where or not you like pigeons, there’s no getting away from the fact that pigeons are highly intelligent animals.
They are very nearly at the top of the tree when it comes to animal intelligence, sharing many of the attributes of humans.
Top tip: If you keep them it’s a good idea to give them some toys for pigeons to keep their intelligent minds active!