Laura Bliss is a staff writer at CityLab, covering transportation, infrastructure, and the environment. She also authors MapLab, a biweekly newsletter about maps that reveal and shape urban spaces (subscribe here). Her work has appeared in the New York Times, The Atlantic, Los Angeles, GOOD, L.A. Review of Books, and beyond.
The birds can learn to classify and "name" a range of objects from city life.
Crows, we know, are among the more brilliant animals urbanites: They've got a pocket dictionary's worth of language calls, can use tools, and can pick out your face in a crowd (just hope they don't poop there). A crow could be, in some ways, more clever than a three-year-old kid.
But another, decidedly less-revered city bird may also register on the human-toddler scale of intelligence: According to a study published this week, pigeons can categorize and "name" objects, using a learning process that might be similar to the one young children go through.
A team of University of Iowa psychologists showed laboratory pigeons 128 digital images of objects from 16 categories (baby, dog, flower, hat, and phone, to name a few). Encouraged by a food bowl, the birds pecked to choose one of two different symbols at the bottom of a touch screen, one correctly representing the object's category and the other incorrectly. The birds quickly grasped that task, then replicated what they had learned using new photos from all of the categories.
In a way, these pigeons were absorbing a vocabulary. University of Iowa psychologist and study author Bob McMurray—a cognitive psychologist who mostly studies humans—connects the results to how children learn words. "Children are confronted with an immense task of learning thousands of words without a lot of background knowledge to go on," he told the university. "For a long time, people thought that such learning is special to humans."
Though more research is needed to support this cognitive connection, classifying objects isn't the only thing pigeons are known to do with surprising accuracy. The homing birds have succeeded at counting, distinguishing between live and recorded footage of themselves, and at grasping cause and effect at a rate of 90 percent accuracy. Also, at getting that banana about as quickly as a chimp: