There's no need to feel superior about our big human brains the next time we see a pigeon trying to choke down a discarded gum wrapper. What looks to us like a dumbo bird that doesn't know what food is might actually be a series of "highly intelligent choices, sometimes with problem-solving skills to match," according to research from the University of Iowa.
Despite their stellar homing skills, ability to recognize themselves on video and other signs of cleverness, pigeons don't typically attract the bird-genius plaudits that humans grant to thieving magpies and talking parrots. But the blah-gray lumps bumbling about on our sidewalks are far from airheads, says Edward Wasserman, who teaches experimental psychology at UI. To prove it, his team gave laboratory pigeons tests that involved pecking at virtual food bowls to unlock real-word rewards – a task that the animals aced up to 90 percent of the time.
The researchers used something called the "string test," which is not this horrible way of monitoring intestinal parasites but a time-honored determination of basic intelligence. The pigeons were plopped in front of touch-screen monitors that showed a pair of virtual strings, one leading to an icon of an empty bowl and the other to a full one. By tapping their beaks on the correct string, the birds were able to "reel in" the full bowls and get a tasty treat from the researchers.
Past research on pigeon behavior suggested they could be as smart as 3-year-old children. Wasserman's study adds compelling evidence that they're more intelligent than cats, which can't even do string tests. (Although that's probably not much comfort to a pigeon being eaten by a cat.) As the university notes:
"The pigeons proved that they could indeed learn this task with a variety of different string configurations—even those that involved crossed strings, the most difficult of all configurations to learn with real strings," says Wasserman....
In videos that the researchers took, the pigeons in many instances scan and bob their heads along the string “often looking toward and pecking at the dish as its moves down the screen,” the authors write, suggesting the birds noted the connection between the virtual strings and the dishes.
If you require another harbinger of the humble pigeon's chilling march toward the top of the food chain, look no further than this 1980s demonstration of a bird solving a Wolfgang Köhler-style banana-in-a-box puzzle. Now I want to see how it does playing Portal: