Pigeons are no birdbrains, according to a New Zealand-German study that found they can distinguish real written words from non-words.
According to a report by news agency Xinhua, published on the IOL website, pigeons can visually process letter combinations to identify real words in English, researchers from New Zealand’s University of Otago and Germany’s Ruhr University said in a statement today (Monday 19 September).
They found that pigeons were the first non-primate species with “orthographic” skills related to the conventions of spelling abilities, and they performed on a par with baboons in such a complex task.
In an experiment, pigeons were trained to peck four-letter English words as they came up on a screen, or to instead peck a symbol when a four-letter non-word, such as “URSP,” was displayed. The researchers added words one by one with the four pigeons in the study, eventually building vocabularies ranging from 26 to 58 words and over 8,000 non-words.
To check whether the pigeons were learning to distinguish words from non-words rather than merely memorising them, the researchers introduced words the birds had never seen before. The pigeons correctly identified the new words as words at a rate significantly above chance.
First author of the study Damian Scarf of Otago’s Department of Psychology said in the statement that they performed the feat by tracking the statistical likelihood that “bigrams” – letter pairs such as “EN” and “AL” – were more likely associated with words than non-words.
“That pigeons separated by 300 million years of evolution from humans, and having vastly different brain architectures, show such a skill as orthographic processing is astonishing,” researcher Onur Gunturkun, of Ruhr University, said in the statement.
Otago researcher Michael Colombo said in the statement that “We may have to seriously re-think the use of the term ‘birdbrain’ as a put down.”