Are Pigeons Intelligent?

I can’t help feeling sorry for the much-maligned pigeon. Many people think of them as being dirty creatures that carry disease. Others see them as bully birds that frighten the small songbirds away from their feeders.

But, I see pigeons in a different light, and I hope you will too once you have read this.

Are pigeons intelligent? Indeed they are, they are the genius’ of the bird world.

Many experiments and tests have been carried out over the years to prove beyond all doubt that pigeons are intelligent.

They can recognise and remember humans that treat them kindly and feed them, and remember those who shoo them away. It isn’t just guesswork, or someone being in the right place at the right time, the birds have excellent facial recognition skills.

This was proved when researchers changed clothes and moved areas.

Not only do pigeons know human faces, in reality, they can also spot people in photographs.

Tests that revolve around treats as rewards prove the birds can tell the difference between images.

Clever Homing Pigeons

I have fond memories from my youth of a favourite uncle spending Saturday afternoons calling his beloved pigeons home from a hard days racing.

I never really appreciated how impressive a feat it was for them to complete exceptionally long journeys without a sat nav!

For hundreds of years, it was thought that the pigeon used the sun and the stars to navigate their way home, and while this may have a hint of truth behind it, German scientists seem to have found the definitive answer.

In 2004 it was discovered that pigeons have microscopic iron-coated structures within their beaks. When in flight, the receptors behave much like a compass, reacting with the earth’s magnetic field.

This tells the pigeon exactly where they are and how to plot a course home.

This is known as magnetoreception and might be common in other birds such as robins and warblers.

They also rely on natural odours to aid their journey. Just like humans, they rely on signposts; not that they can read, that would be pushing it a little too far! Instead, they use large landmarks as their signposts. These are stored in their brilliant memories until required.

Did you know…

During World War 2, intelligent pigeons were used to carry messages behind enemy lines. This was completed to such huge success that of the 250,000 birds used, 32 received medals for bravery, both in Britain and France.

Pigeons and Probability

Researchers in Canada carried out a fascinating test. One pigeon was left in a room that had nothing but 2 buttons, 1 red and 1 green.

When the pigeon used their beak to press the red button, nothing happened. However, when it pressed the green button, a treat was released.

It took very little time for the pigeon to realise the advantage of pressing the green button.

The researchers concluded that similarly to adults, pigeons rely on probability to get the best possible outcome in situations.

Pigeons appreciate Fine Art

Back in 1995, 3 scientists, Watanabe, Wakita, and Sakamoto trained pigeons to tell the difference between 2 artists, Picasso and Monet.

The birds were shown a series of their works and soon figured out that by pecking only one of them, would they get a treat. The images of Monet’s work were fruitless and so were ignored.

When the birds had mastered this with familiar pictures, the men introduced previously unseen pictures by the same artists.

Amazingly, the pigeons had no trouble differentiating between the 2 styles and only pecked the Picasso’s in search of a treat.

The incredible birds took the experiment one step further. They distinguished between cubism and impressionism, the styles of Monet and Picasso, paintings by several artists.

It was believed that the pigeons had equal capabilities and recognition skills to college students that had received equivalent training!

Did you know…

In Roman times pigeons were used to carry the results from sporting events such as the Olympic Games. This is why white doves are released at every opening ceremony to this day.

Pigeon Post in present times

In India, pigeon post was used until as late as 2005, where it was still a valued, reliable service. It was only discontinued for animal welfare reasons, people thought the hard-working birds had earned a break.

Can pigeons recognise themselves

There are few animals in the world that have self-recognition, 7 to be exact. Of those, 6 are mammals. The 7th is the pigeon, the only non-mammal to pass the mirror test and recognise their image.

Final thoughts…

The pigeon is one of the most intelligent birds in the animal kingdom. It is hard to believe that they get such a bad press.

Are pigeons intelligent? Most definitely, they are by no means bird-brained. It is easy to see why some religions hold them in very high esteem.

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