Pigeons never forget a face

Jul 03, 2011
Untrained feral pigeons have special skills enabling them to recognize individuals, and are not fooled by people changing clothes. Credit: Ahmed Belguermi

New research has shown that feral, untrained pigeons can recognise individual people and are not fooled by a change of clothes.

Researchers, who will be presenting their work at the Society for Annual Conference in Glasgow on Sunday the 3rd of July, have shown that urban that have never been caught or handled can recognise individuals, probably by using .

Although pigeons have shown remarkable feats of when given training in the lab this is the first research showing similar abilities in untrained feral pigeons.

In a park in Paris city centre, pigeons were fed by two researchers, of similar build and skin colour, wearing different coloured lab coats. One individual simply ignored the pigeons, allowing them to feed while the other was hostile, and chased them away. This was followed by a second session when neither chased away the pigeons.

The experiment, which was repeated several times, showed that pigeons were able to recognise the individuals and continued to avoid the researcher who had chased them away even when they no longer did so. Swapping lab coats during the experiments did not confuse the pigeons and they continued shun the researcher who had been initially hostile.

"It is very likely that the pigeons recognised the researchers by their faces, since the individuals were both female and of a similar age, build and skin colour," says Dr. Dalila Bovet a co-author of this work from the University of Paris Ouest Nanterre La Défense. "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% of the body."

The fact that the pigeons appeared to know that clothing colour was not a good way of telling humans apart suggests that the birds have developed abilities to discriminate between humans in particular. This specialised ability may have come about over the long period of association with humans, from early domestication to many years of living in cities.

Future work will focus on identifying whether pigeons learn that humans often change clothes and so use more stable characteristics for recognition, or if there is a genetic basis for this ability, linked to domestication or to having evolved in an urban environment.

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Provided by Society for Experimental Biology

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User comments : 13

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Telekinetic
1.3 / 5 (7) Jul 03, 2011
Repeat the same experiment with the two researchers, both wearing identical paper masks. Then you can eliminate other factors that the pigeons may be using to single out the "good" human.
Isaacsname
not rated yet Jul 03, 2011
Repeat the same experiment with the two researchers, both wearing identical paper masks. Then you can eliminate other factors that the pigeons may be using to single out the "good" human.


Or just simple makeup, could be mimes, trannies or clowns ( for the brave ) That would be interesting.

My own experience with birds is that they are very adept at reading your intentions through your eyes, at least in terms of discerning a staring predator from an interested human. My own experiments last summer confirmed this, at least with other wild birds, doves, cardinals, etc. Having grown up with many birds and parrots in my house this was just an observation I made over the years, but I was able to figure out some simple eye movements that calms them enough to allow you to get right up close, it takes a matter of minutes to do with many wild birds. They can probably discern body language, height, etc of individuals as well.
DavidMcC
not rated yet Jul 04, 2011
It has been claimed that at least some birds can smell the difference between individuals, rather than see it. I think JVC argued this case on an old thread. I am not convinced of that myself, but this latest experiment fails to distinguish between different senses. Isaacsname's post does tend to reinforce the vision hypothesis, though.
kevinrtrs
1 / 5 (1) Jul 04, 2011
What does "evolved" mean in this case? If one were to take birds which had never been in an urban environment would they also display the same ability?
Isaacsname
not rated yet Jul 04, 2011
It has been claimed that at least some birds can smell the difference between individuals, rather than see it. I think JVC argued this case on an old thread. I am not convinced of that myself, but this latest experiment fails to distinguish between different senses. Isaacsname's post does tend to reinforce the vision hypothesis, though.


I've had very interesting encounters with pigeons. Here's one.

A coffee shop I used to go to always had pigeons that would walk into the business. I observed them, observing people, to see if people were looking at them, if not, they scuttled inbetween the feet of the people that were waiting in line, which usually extends out the door, onto the sidewalk. But only if they weren't being watched.
Isaacsname
not rated yet Jul 04, 2011
Another.

Same coffee shop, one day a pigeon showed up with a piece of old mop string tangled on it's foot. We all sat around observing the bird, talking about how annoying it must be to have a string tangled around your foot. So I got down on my knees , held out my hand, and said to the bird " Would you like me to get that piece of string off your foot ?"

......the bird walked over to me, held up it's foot, and let me take the string off. Left us all with open mouths, myself included.

What does this mean ?

I truly can't say anything except that talking to the birds might not be all that bad afterall. :)
Telekinetic
1 / 5 (5) Jul 04, 2011
Another.

Same coffee shop, one day a pigeon showed up with a piece of old mop string tangled on it's foot. We all sat around observing the bird, talking about how annoying it must be to have a string tangled around your foot. So I got down on my knees , held out my hand, and said to the bird " Would you like me to get that piece of string off your foot ?"

......the bird walked over to me, held up it's foot, and let me take the string off. Left us all with open mouths, myself included.

What does this mean ?


That's a great story. I don't want to ruffle any feathers, but could the pigeon have telepathically known of your empathetic history with your own birds, and based on your non-verbal transmission, deemed your intentions worthy of its trust? My dog would lift her paw for me to clear the ice and salt from her paw. Not as amazing as your pigeon, but reinforces the idea of trans-species communication.
Isaacsname
not rated yet Jul 04, 2011
Lol, I see what you did there.

I don't know. Telepathy, to me, is just an ambiguous term to name a perceptual mechanism/s that we haven't yet identified, like telecognition.

I do know that it's not just birds that I can interact with like this, it almost seems like they can all sense it somehow ( my intention ), I just don't know how else to describe it.

I had a birdfeeder in my window next to my desk, little by little I got them used to eating while my face was inches away. I noticed that after the intial establishment of my non-threatening status through eye contact, they would stand face to face with me, inches away, studying my face while I studied theirs, sometimes for 5 or more minutes. Where they thinking about it ? Idk. Did they recognize me ? Yes, they wouldn't come close to the feeder when friends were over. When I stopped getting up in the window up close, I noticed they would come up to the window and stare inside at me, looking around at things on my desk, etc
Isaacsname
not rated yet Jul 04, 2011
So, they are very curious, as just as curious sometimes as we are, imo. Quite amusing to have an audience of wild birds staring at you through a window.

But their perceptions of what comprises a threat vs a benign encounter I think is deeper than just visual, it's probably quite a few things. Being a chef, and having cooked and handled a lot of dead birds :(, I think that were it " telepathy ' in the normally thought-of sense, they wouldn't come close to me.
Telekinetic
1 / 5 (5) Jul 04, 2011
You're a latter day Dr. Dolittle, alright. It never fails to amaze me in how small a package a fully developed consciousness can be contained, which begs the question, is consciousness independent of the brain, a self-contained massless entity? Also, very small creatures responding to affection and petting really makes me wonder.
Isaacsname
not rated yet Jul 05, 2011
Thanks.

Yeah, things like sensory dep tanks and OBE's beg the question too, don't they ?
Telekinetic
1 / 5 (5) Jul 05, 2011
I was around in the 70's when the tanks were popular, but never tried it. OBE's, though- let's just say that's a discussion for another time and place.
Isaacsname
5 / 5 (1) Jul 05, 2011
http://www.physor...184.html

Apparently they are good art critics too :)

True about OBE's. Sense dep tanks, I am going to try one soon, got a friend who has one in his basement. Looking forward to it.