Travellers of the wind and the curse of nurdles

This is the story about near-magical seabirds that criss-cross the globe, and small, lentil-sized blobs of plastic called nurdles. It is both astounding and worrying, writes DON PINNOCK.


Photo of a Wandering Albatross by Don Pinnock

We live on the lesser part of the planet. Two-thirds of Earth is vast, featureless and, for most people, pretty frightening plains of undulating water. Poking through this liquid skin are islands where millions of seabirds nest – as far away from humans and other predators as they can getSafest are rocky outcrops in the icy high latitudes of the polar regions. Birds like shearwaters, albatrosses, fulmars, kittiwakes, gannets, gillemots and puffins, spend much of their life far from land. But eggs need a safe, stable nest, so the lonely islands are essentially temporary breeding colonies. For this purpose seabirds construct nests or dig burrows where they lay, warm and – when they hatch – feed their scrawny, hungry young. To protect the chicks from raiding gulls and skuas, a breeding pair (many seabird species mate for life) will take turns to go fishing or sit in the nest.

Anybody who’s seen a colony with sometimes hundreds of thousands of nests just beyond pecking distance of each other and heard its mind-numbing cacophony will unfailingly wonder how each bird finds its way back to its nest.

This question became the lifelong pursuit of Gabrielle Nevitt, a professor at the University of California who first visited the Antarctic islands in 1991.

Seabirds like shearwaters belong to a family known at tube-noses because of a pair of exterior nostrils moulded to the upper side of their bills. It was originally thought this oversized snoot helped to disperse salt swallowed while grabbing fish, but Nevitt wondered if it might be meant for what noses are for: smelling.

She soaked absorbent tampons in a variety of fishy-smelling oils and attached them to kites which she flew from the back of a research ship – scientists are inventive people. The kites attracted crowds of petrels and albatrosses. She was ecstatic.

Sniffing around seabird rookeries, she came up with a plausible theory for their homing abilities: each pair and its nest had a particular smell, an aural barcode, and the birds had a phenomenal ability to detect it. The parts of tube-nose brains dealing with smell, it turns out, have six times as many smelling cells as mice with comparable brain size.

But smelly nests didn’t solve a much bigger puzzle. How do seabirds – which range forhundreds of thousands of kilometres and can spend years at sea without coming near land – unerringly find their way back to their nest when they need to breed?

The answer came following a chance meeting with Tim Bates, a chemist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. He was investigating a gas called dimethyl sulphide (DMS) emitted by phytoplankton, the microscopic plants that live on the surface of the ocean.

When damaged, they emit the gas which, it seems, could provide aerosols around which clouds gather. Spraying DMS over large tracts of ocean could create cloud cover to counter global warming, but that’s another story.

Nevitt took off in another direction. Krill, the major food source for many seabirds, eat phytoplankton, producing clouds of DMS. Could shearwaters smell DMS?

Bates had sea maps of DMS concentrations. These coincided with krill concentrations and that’s where seabirds concentrate. Birds like albatrosses and fulmars, which hunt fish exclusively, were also zooming in because fish eat krill and follow krill concentrations. Nevitt had a proverbial ah-ha moment.

Seabirds, we now know, navigate the vast oceans by smell. Nevitt found they could smell one molecule of DMS at a concentration of less than one part per 10-billion.

DMS is undoubtedly not the only thing seabirds can smell. Turbulent coastal waters, upwellings around underwater seamounts, ocean currents all have their characteristic smell if you have the nose for it.

As chicks roam further and further, they build up smell maps that eventually allow them to range across two thirds of the planet and know precisely where they are. When wandering albatrosses leave their natal nest, they may not return to land for four or five years. The open oceans are their home. But at breeding time they never misplace their personal nest. In his book The Seabird’s cry, Adam Nicolson tracks their path in a long but delightful sentence:

“What may be featureless to us, a waste of undifferentiated ocean, is for them rich with distinction and variety, a fissured and wrinkled landscape, dense in patches, thin in others, a rolling olfactory prairie of the desired and the desirable, mottled and unreliable, speckled with life, streaky with pleasures and dangers, marbled and flecked, its riches often hidden and always mobile, but filled with places that are pregnant with life and possibility.”

There is, of course, a problem. There always seems to be one where humans are concerned.

By now most people know about the vast gyres of plastic sea trash in most oceans. But the bottles, crates, nets and bags are just part of the problem. An almost bigger issue are small, lentil-sized colourful plastic pellets called nurdles.

Billions are made each year and those that don’t become products generally end up in the sea. Fish eat the nurdles and sea creatures and birds eat the plastic litter. This has been going on for half a century and is now a planet-wide disaster.

Sorry, it gets worse. Small pieces of plastic, as they decompose, emit clouds of DMS which attracts seabirds. In the plastic soup there are plenty of things that look like krill, cocpoods and fish. Seabird numbers are plummeting and now we know why.

When our descendants look back on the planet-wide plunder we call civilisation, they’ll wonder why we didn’t notice the danger of extruding trillions of tons of plastic junk on to the land and into the sea. Will there still some albatrosses and shearwaters around? We can but hope.       From the Daily Maverick

Tangled and drowned: new study shows that penguins are threatened by fishing nets


The following article is from BirdLife SA

Researchers from across the world have collaborated to produce the first global review of penguin bycatch, published in the scientific journal Endangered Species Research.

Penguins are among the world’s most loved birds, in spite of the fact most people will never get to see one in the wild. Indeed, the opportunities to do so are diminishing, with 10 of the 18 penguin species threatened with extinction. After albatrosses, they are the most threatened group of seabirds and, like albatrosses, bycatch is thought to be a serious threat to some species.

Bycatch, or the accidental capture of non-target animals in fisheries, is a threat to an array of marine life, including dolphins, turtles and seabirds. To date, however, there has been no global assessment of this threat to penguins. This first global review of penguin bycatch highlights that 14 penguin species have been recorded as bycatch in fisheries, and that gillnets – and to a lesser extent trawls – are the fishing gears of most concern for penguins. Both are widespread fishing gears, and gillnets in particular – walls of fine nylon mesh used to catch fish by the gills – are the gear of choice for many small-scale fishers the world over.

Diving birds like penguins, unable to see the fine mesh underwater, are particularly vulnerable to gillnets, becoming entangled as they dive. The effect of bycatch is of greatest concern for three species: Humboldt and Magellanic Penguins, both found in South America, and Yellow-eyed Penguins, an endangered species found only in New Zealand.

“This work provides a clear focus for reducing the impact of bycatch on penguins – across the Pacific and Atlantic coasts of South America, and perhaps most urgently, in New Zealand for the endemic Yellow-eyed Penguin,” said Rory Crawford, Gillnet Programme Manager for BirdLife International, and co-ordinator of the review. “This has been a major collaborative effort from the penguin research community, but the hard work starts now. There needs to be direct engagement with the fishing industry and management authorities to tackle this problem.”

“Our own African Penguins have been caught in gillnets in the past, but luckily the government acted quickly and put in place gillnet bans around penguin breeding colonies,” said Christina Hagen, the Pamela Isdell Fellow of Penguin Conservation at BirdLife South Africa. “But we don’t know if this continues to be a problem, and urge anyone with sightings or information to please contact us.”

“In the past 20 years, Yellow-eyed Penguins have declined by 76% at previous population strongholds. Preventing their deaths in New Zealand inshore gillnet fisheries is a major priority to save them”, added Ursula Ellenberg, the New Zealand Penguin scientist who initiated the global review.

The impact of penguin bycatch across South America will require collaboration across international borders: “Magellanic penguins are being caught along their migratory route – from trawl fisheries next to their Argentinean breeding grounds to gillnet fisheries off southern Brazil in the non-breeding period,” said Esteban Frere, South America Coordinator for the BirdLife Marine Programme, who first conducted research into the bycatch of this species 20 years ago. “Further studies on-board vessels are required to assess the severity of the problem and identify solutions.”

The review recommends a number of actions to tackle the problem, including the presence of fisheries observers or video monitoring on vessels to monitor bycatch, as well as research into mitigation measures to make nets more visible to penguins. While this research is conducted, spatial and temporal management of fisheries will need to be considered to reduce the impact on the most threatened populations.

While much work is still to be done to reduce penguin bycatch, inspiration can be taken from other fisheries. The BirdLife Albatross Task Force, a team of instructors working directly on fishing vessels to implement simple measures to reduce albatross bycatch, has succeeded in reducing bycatch in a South African trawl fishery by over 90%. It is hoped that similar success can be achieved for penguins.

For further information please contact:

Rory Crawford, Programme Manager – Gillnets
BirdLife International Marine Programme
Tel: +44 (0)141 331 9801
Mobile: +44 (0)7739 921 489
Christina Hagen, Pamela Isdell Fellow of Penguin Conservation BirdLife South Africa Tel: +27 (0)21 4197347

The journal article can be downloaded here:

The review represents the collaborative work of 29 co-authors from across the globe, drawing in expertise from environmental NGOs, academia and government fisheries departments.

Species and threat statuses (listed by BirdLife International for the IUCN Red List) of three species most threatened by bycatch:

 Yellow-eyed Penguin Megadyptes antipodes (Endangered).
 Humboldt Penguin Spheniscus humboldti (Vulnerable).
 Magellanic Penguin Spheniscus magellanicus (Near-Threatened).
More information about BirdLife and the Albatross Task Force can be found at

Beach Breeding Birds


A request from Anton Odendal:

Dear all,

Hope this finds you all well.

We have just launched our first project resulting from the BirdLife Overberg workshop presented earlier this month. It will be appreciated if all of you who find African Black Oystercatchers and White-fronted Plovers that are breeding or raising chicks along the Overstrand beaches report it with an email to Kindly also provide the GPS coordinates of the nest sites and ensure that the birds are not disturbed – do not go within 30 yards from the nests and keep dogs on leashes.

Also consider forwarding this to all like-minded people or organisations that might be in a position to assist with this.

We have posted an article with illustrations on what we are trying to achieve with this project at the link below. Kindly read this and assist us as far as you can.

Kind regards.


Keir Lynch – June Speaker


This month we will be privileged to have Keir Lynch addressing us at our monthly meeting on 21 June. His talk will be titled “Birds and Biodiversity –  Threatened Species in a Threatened Landscape.” and should be of interest to all members.

In his own words, “I have two decades of experience within nature conservation and have been privileged to work in the Klaserie Private Nature Reserve, Phinda Private Nature Reserve, Shamwari Game Reserve and Sanbona Wildlife Reserve.  In 2012 I joined the CapeNature Biodiversity Stewardship Programme and was responsible for landscape conservation and protected area expansion in the Overberg region.  I left CapeNature to head into the frontlines of conserving threatened ecosystems by heading up a Watercourse Restoration Project for the Overberg Renosterveld Conservation Trust, a project funded by the WWF Nedbank Green Trust.  I am also the Chairperson of the Overberg Crane Group and an avid naturalist.  When not looking at birds I can be found searching for snakes underneath rocks or wading through wetlands in search of frogs.”

We look forward to a full turn out at this interesting meeting.

April Meeting – ‘Western Cape Estuaries’

Members are reminded that Giselle Murison, Project Manager for the Western Cape Estuaries Conservation Project, will be addressing us on the 19th.  The meeting will start at 18h00 so as to allow extra time to discuss possible affiliation with BirdLife SA.

Western Cape Estuaries Conservation Project

South Africa’s estuaries are one of the country’s most productive habitats. Known for their biodiversity and the important functions they perform, such as providing nursery areas for fish, and feeding and staging areas for significant populations of migratory birds, estuaries constitute one of the country’s most valuable, but vulnerable ecosystems. Many are at risk from multiple threats, including unsustainable land use and unsound land management practices, in part due to their lack of formal protection.Photo 1. Riviera mudflat Berg River Estuary Velddrif

BirdLife South Africa’s Western Cape Estuaries Conservation Project looks to address this gap by seeking formal protection and sustained conservation action for this under-protected ecosystem. Funded by WWF South Africa’s Elizabeth Harding Bequest, the project is focused on the expansion and proclamation of protected areas at three high priority estuaries, identified as Important Bird and Biodiversity Areas (IBAs) in the Western Cape, and on working with landowners to improve conservation action within these estuaries and their catchment areas to further enable their maintenance and management.

The sites, the Berg River Estuary IBA at Velddrif on the West Coast, and the Klein River and Bot-Kleinmond River Estuaries near Hermanus, which form part of the Cape Whale Coast IBA, are some of the most important estuaries in South Africa for conserving birds and biodiversity. Havens for several internationally and nationally important bird species populations, including African Black Oystercatcher Haematopus moquini, Cape Cormorant Phalacrocorax capensis, Greater Flamingo Phoenicopterus roseus, Caspian Tern Sterna caspia and Great White Pelican Pelecanus onocrotalus, as well as significant populations of congregatory waterbirds, such as Red-knobbed Coot Fulica cristata, these estuaries are some of the most valuable in the country for nature conservation, particularly with respect to their bird and fish fauna.

All three estuaries are IBAs; places of international significance for the conservation of birds and other biodiversity. The estuaries’ rich birdlife offers substantial tourism and recreational potential, as do their natural settings, if managed appropriately. They are vital as a nursery for juvenile fish, many species of which form the basis of employment for the local communities, as well as being fundamental to supplying the wider commercial fishing industry.

Under threat from encroaching development, and increasing human disturbance and exploitation, as well as the reduction and pollution of their freshwater inflows, amongst other pressures, these estuaries are highly vulnerable to further degradation and an accompanying loss of biodiversity.

The key objectives of the project are:

• To facilitate formal protected area expansion at these unprotected estuaries through biodiversity stewardship agreements, or similar management models focused on the environment.
• To improve conservation action within the estuaries and their catchment areas, to help landowners tackle the environmental issues they’re facing. By working closely with all relevant stakeholders, including conservation agencies such as Cape Nature, local, provincial and national government bodies, as well as existing forums, such as the Estuary Management Forums, any and all actions aimed at furthering or securing the conservation and protective status of these sites will be identified and progressed with the full cooperation of all parties.

Photo 2. Klein River Estuary Hermanus

It is hoped that future designations will provide benefits for the private landowners involved, while helping to safeguard the areas’ biodiversity and ecosystem services for a more productive and sustainable landscape in the future.

The project will run for three years, from July 2015 until July 2018.

For more information on the project, please contact Giselle Murison at

Saving Africa’s only native penguin species

Africa’s only native penguin species is inching towards extinction due to local food shortages. Conservationists are now trying to reconnect penguin and prey

African Penguins © Shutterstock
African Penguins © Shutterstock
By Christina Hagen

Penguin: the word elicits images of snowy landscapes, icebergs and tightly huddled groups of penguins bracing the harshest of elements. One penguin species that bucks this cold climate trend is the hardy African Penguin Spheniscus demersus, found only on the south-western tip of Africa, in South Africa and Namibia. This species is adapted to warmer subtropical environments, often having to survive temperatures of over 30° C, likely never to see snow or ice.

The African Penguin population, once numbering in the millions, has been reduced to just 1% of its size in the 1900s. Historical egg collecting between 1900 and 1930 resulted in the removal of a staggering 13 million eggs from southern African islands. At the same time, the “white gold rush” for guano, harvested for fertiliser resulted in widespread habitat alteration.

In the space of just a few decades, the guano that had accumulated over thousands of years was removed. Instead of making well-insulated burrows in the guano, penguins are now forced to nest on the surface at most colonies, leaving eggs and chicks exposed to the elements and predation. By the time these two devastating practices were halted in the 1960s, the penguin population had been reduced to just 300,000 breeding birds.

Shortly thereafter a new threat appeared in the form of industrialised fishing for sardine – the African Penguins preferred prey. With the advent of new technologies, fish catches increased to never-before-seen levels. Just 20 years later, the sardine fishery had collapsed. Despite expectations that fishing would be forced to slow down, attentions instead shifted to the smaller, less profitable anchovy, the alternate prey available to the penguins.

Growing penguin chicks need a diet very high in lipids – something that sardine and anchovy provide. Not dissimilar to humans, research suggests that when seabird chicks are fed on lower quality “junk food”, they are slower to develop and can experience decreased cognitive ability, making it harder for the young birds to find food once they have fledged.

As if conditions for the penguins weren’t bad enough, in the 1990s the remaining sardine and anchovy fish shocks started shifting away from their areas of historical abundance. “Because breeding penguins are limited to a 40 km radius from attention-needing nests and chicks, the bulk of the fish have now shifted out of reach of the penguins”, explains Dr Ross Wanless, Seabird Division Manager at BirdLife South Africa.

Scientists aren’t sure what has caused this shift in distribution but it is likely that both climate change and high levels of fishing on the west coast have played a part. To counter this change in distribution, a novel and innovative project was started to investigate whether new penguin colonies can be established in the areas of high fish abundance.

“Extinct colonies of seabirds have been re-established for flying seabirds, such as the Atlantic Puffin in Maine and several species of petrel from New Zealand, but it has only been attempted once for a penguin species, and never for African Penguins”, says Wanless.

“This project has the potential to increase the penguin population and provide “insurance” by increasing the number of colonies, reducing vulnerability to catastrophic events.” BirdLife South Africa, with the support of several other local and international organisations, has identified two sites at which to attempt the establishment of penguin colonies.

“We’ve decided first to re-establish a colony which started naturally in 2003 but was prevented from taking hold due to predation by terrestrial predators”, says Wanless. “By setting up an effective predator-proof fence we plan to avoid that happening again.” Decoys and the playing of penguin calls will be used to attract birds in from sea and just-fledged chicks will be moved to the new areas to encourage them to return there to breed.

Once penguins start breeding in a colony they return there year after year – a trait which helps them find the same mate again – which is why young chicks need to be encouraged to breed at the new sites, before they chose somewhere else. The aim of the new colonies is to assist penguins to move to these relatively new regions of high food availability.

“While this process could occur naturally over several hundreds of years, we need to help it happen faster”, says Wanless. African Penguins also face a number of other threats, from predation to oil spills to the lack of nesting habitat, and there are conservation interventions in place to address these. Artificial nest boxes are provided to improve breeding success and rehabilitation centres have been set up to care for oiled and injured birds.

“But a lack of food remains the biggest challenge”, says Dr Taryn Morris, Coastal Seabirds Conservation Manager at BirdLife South Africa. “Our focus is on driving protection of their feeding grounds and working with fisheries and government to ensure the ecosystem needs are taken into account.”

The African Penguin is facing an uncertain future but there is a group of dedicated organisations and passionate individuals who are working to ensure the survival of the species. But by moving penguins closer to their food and trying to ensure there are more fish in the sea, we hope tip the balance in their favour.


Christina Hagen is a Pamela Isdell Fellow of Penguin Conservation, BirdLife South Africa

Cape Vultures killed at wind farms


Cape Vulture near De Hoop Reserve – R Hazell

 Johannesburg, 6 April 2017: African’s vultures are in trouble. Most old-world vultures (vultures found in Africa, Europe, and Asia) have faced severe population declines and are on the edge of extinction. The Cape Vulture is found only in southern Africa, which means that South Africa has a special responsibility to protect this species. This vulture was recently up-listed from “Vulnerable” to “Endangered”, and the species faces numerous threats including poisoning and collisions with and electrocution on powerlines. Scientists predict that increased temperatures associated with global climate change may also negatively impact Cape Vultures. Ironically, a major part of our strategy to minimize climate change – wind energy – may pose a new threat to these endangered birds.

“It is with great sadness that we share news of the first Cape Vultures fatalities as a result of collisions with wind turbines” said Samantha Ralston-Paton, Birds and Renewable Energy Project Manager at BirdLife South Africa. “As far as we know, these are the first incidents of this kind for the species” she said. To date four Cape Vulture fatalities as a result of turbine collisions have been reported to BirdLife South Africa.

The collisions were expected and have confirmed conservationists’ concerns that Cape Vultures and wind farms are not compatible. Other vulture species (e.g. the Eurasian Griffon Vulture) have experienced high fatality rates at wind farms in Spain, and the Cape Vulture is ranked as the top priority in BirdLife South Africa’s list of bird species likely to be vulnerable to the impacts of wind energy.

“It is a challenge to find a balance between wind energy and bird conservation,” notes Samantha. “Climate change is a significant threat to our environment and to our well-being, and healthy ecosystems are our main line of defense. We need renewable energy, but it must be developed with respect for nature,” she said.

The most widely accepted strategy to minimize wind energy’s negative effects is to place wind turbines outside of areas regularly used by collision-prone birds. Vultures travel many kilometers from their colonies and roosts, and according to BirdLife South Africa, this implies that large areas may be unsuitable for the development of wind farms. One of the wind farms that reported Cape Vulture fatalities is located approximated 20 km from the nearest known vulture roost, and the other is approximately 12 km from a temporary roost.

“We have come a long way since the first wind farms received environmental approval. The impact assessments for the two wind farms where the mortalities were recorded were completed before BirdLife South Africa and the Endangered Wildlife Trust’s Best Practice Guidelines for monitoring and impact assessment were adopted, and we also now recommend, and are seeing, much more rigorous impact assessments where wind farms are proposed within the range of Cape Vulture” notes Samantha.

“We are grateful that post-construction monitoring data are being gathered and shared with us. This is not the norm in many countries elsewhere in the world. So far only a small number of vultures have been affected, but it is important that we learn from and respond to these experiences as quickly as possible to make sure the number of mortalities stays low. Sharing this information also gives us an opportunity to engage with decision-makers, wind farms, bird specialists and researchers to try find solutions”.

Both wind farms have committed to implement further mitigation measures, including actively searching for and removing any animal carcasses in the area. This will reduce the likelihood of vultures visiting the wind farms in search of food. The risk of collisions can also be minimized by stopping turbines turning when vultures are observed in the vicinity of the wind farm. This strategy has been implemented at one of the wind farms, and is being considered at the other.

BirdLife South Africa, the Endangered Wildlife Trust and VulPro have recently issued a statement highlighting their concern around ambitions to develop wind farms in the Eastern Cape. Two Renewable Energy Development Zones proposed by the Department of Environmental Affairs’ draft Strategic Environmental Assessment for Wind and Solar Energy overlap with areas regularly used by Cape Vultures. “A recent study by the CSIR has confirmed that the wind resource in South Africa is excellent in most areas, and we believe there is no need to develop in high risk areas” notes Samantha.

Now that there is evidence the Cape Vultures are at risk at wind farms, the challenge for conservationists and environmentalists is to make sure that the number of vultures affected remains low. “One of BirdLife South Africa’s roles is to make sure that birds do not get overlooked as we scramble to find solutions to the climate change crisis” Samantha concluded.

Birdlife South Africa

HBC Library


The following titles are available through our inhouse Library which is kept by Craig.


BOOK NAME                                      AUTHOR  


Birds of the Lowveld  by  Peter Ginn

Birds of the KNP   by  Kenneth Newman

Bird behaviour  by   Robert Burton

Birds of Southern Africa  by  O P M Prozesky

Chamberlain LBJ’s  by   Faansie Peacock

Camera Studies of SA Birds  by   C J Uys

Colour Encyclopaedia of Birds  by   Euan Dunn

Distribution & Status of Birds of Kruger  by  A C Kemp

Garden Birds of SA   by   Ginn/McIllron

Garden Birds of SA  by   Geoff Lockwood

Gardening with Birds   by   Tom Spence

More Garden Birds of SA  by   Ginn/McIllron

Mondi Southern Birds   by  Petersen/Tripp

Migrating Raptors of the World  by   Keith Bildstein

Roadside Birds of SA  by   Kenneth Newman

Seabird Identification Guide  by   Peter Harrison

Sibley Birding Basics   by  David Sibley

South African Birds  by   Leonard Gill

SA Birds – Photographic guide   by   Ian Sinclair

The Birds around us   by   Richard Liversidge

The Bird- Master of Flight  by   Harrison/Loxton

Vanishing Eagles   by    Philip Burton

Wildfowl-Ducks,Geese & Swans   by    Madge/Burn

Important Bird & Biodiversity Areas of SA




V1 To Fly or not to Fly

V2 The Mastery of Flight

V3 The Insatiable Appetite

V4 Meat Eaters

V5 Fishing for a Living

V6 Signals and Songs

V7 Finding Partners

V8 The Demands of the Egg

V9 The Problems of Parenthood

V10 The Limits of Endurance

V12 Okavango Magic

V13/14 Sasol Birds of Kruger

V16 Attenborough in Paradise

V18 S A Bird Sounds

V19 S A Bird Sounds

V20 City Slickers

V21 Raptor Force

V22 Bird Song of Southern Africa

V23 Winged Safari

V24 An introduction to SA Birds




C1 Bird Calls for Beginners

C2 S A Bird Sounds

C3 The Hermanus Cliff Path Experience

Pigeons are no birdbrains


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).


A Rock Pigeon or Dove (Tuinduif), probably the most common pigeon species in the world. The report did not name the species used in the study. Image: Charles Naudé.

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.”