Monday, July 4, 2011

The Intelligence and Memory of Birds

In the news this week: Pigeons can recognize individual people — and they aren't fooled by changes of clothing, which leads researchers to suggest they must be able to pick out and remember facial features.

Robin - photo by Shelley Banks
I see you, I know you, and I will remember you....  © SB
Personally, I'm not at all surprised that birds have this skill.

For several years in Montreal, I was targeted by a robin,who was unhappy about my nest-averting tricks.

She remembered my harassment, and spring after spring after spring, she attacked me. And only me.

Not only that, but as far as I could figure out, she trained others to dive-bomb me (and only me), as well. Although perhaps it only felt like I was outnumbered...

I've also heard that crows are bright enough to recognize people. (And in his Ted talk on crows, Joshua Klein confirms crows can, and will, recognize their researchers — or tormentors — and make them miserable.)

Back to the pigeons... From the Society for Experimental Biology Annual Conference in Glasgow, as reported in Saturday's Chicago Sun Times story, "Pigeons know us by our faces":
In a park in Paris, two scientists, of similar build and skin color, wore different colored lab coats. One researcher simply ignored the pigeons, allowing them to feed. The other researcher was hostile and chased them away. The experiment was repeated several times, with the researchers switching coats. The birds continued to avoid the researcher who had been initially hostile.
And to be clear, these were wild, untrained pigeons —  or as untrained as park pigeons, long used to humans, are likely to be.

Today's Daily Mail story, "Pigeons never forget a face", quotes the researcher, Dr Dalila Bovet of the University of Paris, who explains:
"It is very likely that the pigeons recognised the researchers by their faces... Interestingly, the pigeons, without training, spontaneously used the most relevant characteristics of the individuals — probably facial traits — instead of the lab coats that covered 90 per cent of the body."
So if pigeons and crows can tell us apart and know who's safe and who's not, why not robins? Why not all birds?

They may be brighter than we've given them credit for... And  in at least this area of perception, they may be far brighter than we are.


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