Inspiration Wildlife

Pigeon intelligence


8 Feb 2011

Pigeons are intelligent. They have the ability to ‘home’ and take advantage of feeding opportunities within their environment to survive. The evidence is in the cities thriving pigeon population.

How do pigeons successfully find their way home? There are many explanations including the use of smell, memory, the sun, the roads, landmarks and the earths electromagnetic field, but there is still no hard evidence that one method is better than the other. Could it be that all the theories relating to pigeon navigation are correct, and that pigeons use a combination of (learnt) skills and instinct to guide them on their journey?

I met with lecturer and researcher Dr Mark Haselgrove from the Faculty of Science at Nottingham University, who believes that pigeons use more than one method to navigate.

My research examines the mechanisms and properties of learning in humans and non-human animals. I am particularly interested in understanding how animals attend to and represent stimuli within the world. Most of my research has employed techniques such as appetitive Pavlovian conditioning with rats, and autoshaping with pigeons.

Autoshaping (sometimes called “sign tracking”) is any of a variety of experimental procedures used to study classical conditioning in pigeons. In autoshaping, in contrast to shaping, food comes irrespective of the behavior of the pigeon. Therefore it can be seen as a method of learning, in this experiment a pigeon was placed in a box and presented with an image to respond to and receive food.

Mark Haswell and his colleagues have developed a theory that pigeons have a photographic memory, that can be used to assist with autoshaping. Mark explains that the pigeon can recall the memory of the image (visual stimuli), like a photograph and use to successfully overlay and match up both images.

Autoshaping experiments can include images, colour, words and symbols for example:

Triangle shape image= food

Circle shape image= no food

Card 1- peck

Card 2- do not peck

Pigeons are very good at distinguishing letters, shape and colour to peck at in order to receive food. However, they are not very good at realising abstract shapes, and do not respond as well to sound or smell.

The data I have been collecting from the pigeons at the canal started in Oct 2009, I intend to collect a years worth of data (on numbers and colour morph). During this time I would also like to explore learning and memory in pigeons, by using autoshaping to produce a series of experiments. There are a few ways I could do this- by changing the colour of my coats, by wearing different perfume, by using an object they can associate with being fed and not being fed and exploring the use of different tonal sounds. At the moment the pigeons at the canal associate my green coat and my iphone with being fed.

There are also imitation experiments, including Automatic imitation and Counter imitation.

Humans often engage in automatic imitation without even realising it, when the sight of a friend, relative or a colleague moving in a particular way elicits the same movement in the observer.

In an experiment, budgerigars had to peck or step upon a small button for food reward whilst watching video recordings of another budgerigar either pecking or stepping on the same button. The scientists split the birds into two groups — one in which they were rewarded for imitation, the other in which they were rewarded for counter-imitation.

B.F. Skinner was a American behaviorist, author, inventor, social philosopher and poet.  Skinner invented the operant conditioning chamber, (seen above) innovated his own philosophy of science called Radical behaviorism and founded his own school of experimental research psychology—the experimental analysis of behavior.

B.F. Skinner trains two pigeons to perform a chain of behaviours for the classroom demonstration.  As a result, pigeons engage in a competition, the so-called ‘Pigeon Ping Pong’ (narrated by B.F. Skinner).


Lucy Stevens is an artist whose environmental soundscapes and visual art investigates the relationship between humanity and nature.

3 comments on “Pigeon intelligence

  1. Pingback: April in Paris « Pigeon Post

  2. Pingback: Camac artist residency « Lucy Stevens Binaural audio projects

  3. Very nice site!

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