Pigeons can distinguish whether words are real, study finds

Pigeons can distinguish real words from non-words such as 'URSP'. Photo/Supplied
Pigeons can distinguish real words from non-words such as 'URSP'. Photo/Supplied

"Bird brain" could be seen as a compliment after a University of Otago study revealed pigeons can distinguish real words from non-words.

The pigeons' performance was on a par with that previously reported in baboons for this type of complex task, researchers found.

The birds in the study were able to distinguish which words were real by visually processing their letter combinations, according to research from Otago and Ruhr University in Germany.

Their study, which is published in the international journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), is the first to identify a non-primate species as having "orthographic" abilities.

Orthographic processing means using the visual system to form, store, and recall words.

In the 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 8000 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, researchers said.

According to the study's first author, Dr Damian Scarf of the University of Otago's Department of Psychology, they performed this feat by tracking the statistical likelihood that "bigrams", letter pairs such as "EN" and "AL", were more likely associated with words or non-words.

Scarf said the pigeon in the above video was new to the game.

"Our experienced birds are on holiday so the video is of bird we are just starting to teach, hence the birds makes a few errors," he said.

"The name of the game for the bird is that if a word comes up, it pecks the word, if a nonword/gibberish comes up then it pecks the star symbol."

There were two stars among the group of four birds.

"We trained four birds on the task and two birds got up to 60 words, rivaling some of the baboons other researchers have trained on the same task, while the other two struggled to get to 30 words."

One of the co-investigators from Ruhr University's Department of Biopsychology, Professor Onur Güntürkün, said "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".

Another of the study's authors, Professor Michael Colombo of Otago's Department of Psychology, said "we may have to seriously re-think the use of the term 'bird brain' as a put down".

The University received no funding for the project. The had their students train the birds as part of the research projects,

"We already had all the equipment, as it is the same equipment we use to train birds on various other tasks," Scarf said.

- NZ Herald

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