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by KindMeal.my, 11 October 2016
Is It Pigeon English?

They may not be reading the classics yet, but a University of Otago study has revealed pigeons can learn to distinguish real words from non-words.

In the two-year research project, four Dunedin pigeons were trained to peck four letter English words on a touch screen, or peck a symbol on the screen when a four letter non-word like "mtsp" appeared.

Study co-author and University of Otago department of psychology lecturer Dr Damian Scarf said the pigeons' performance was equal to that identified in baboons when completing complex tasks.

"At the end of the day it might take pigeons a little bit longer than monkeys but the understanding can be the same."

The collaborative study between the University of Otago and Ruhr University in Germany was the first to identify a non-primate species as having "orthographic" abilities. Orthographic processing was the ability to use a visual system to form, store and recall words, Dr Scarf said.

Over the course of the experiment the pigeons were gradually introduced to new words, with each bird displaying a recognition of between 26 and 58 words and 8000 non-words. The birds completed about 100 word trials a day.

"It has taken years, because you can only give them so many trials a day because with a wheat reward they get full and stop playing."

The study's six researchers introduced new words to ensure the pigeons were distinguishing words from non-words rather than merely memorising them, he said.

The rate at which the pigeons recognised new words as words was "significantly above chance". "Two of the pigeons got up to understanding nearly 60 words quite quickly, the others struggled around 30."

The statistical likelihood that "bigrams" - letter pairs such "EN" and "AL" - were more often associated with words or non-words was the method used to measure identification rate.

Dr Scarf said the study, which was published in the international journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, challenged the stereotype of pigeons as the rats of the sky.

"We basically look at them as not nearly as intelligent as crows or parrots. They don't have the traditional qualities people use to define intelligence ... like the ability to talk."

The discovery also shed light on the cognitive abilities of our ancestors.

"We can infer that whatever orthographic abilities that are there humans and birds shared 3000 years ago. These are the building blocks for us becoming so smart.''

The researchers would now attempt to teach the pigeons words through total immersion.

"Can we teach them words the same way as we teach children?

Such a study would provide further evidence pigeons could differentiate between what comprised a word and a non-word, he said. « Back To Articles