Pigeons can learn to distinguish real words from non-words

September 19, 2016, University of Otago
Pigeons can learn to distinguish real words from non-words
Dr Damian Scarf. Credit: University of Otago

Pigeons can learn to distinguish real words from non-words by visually processing their letter combinations, surprising new research from the University of Otago in New Zealand and Ruhr University in Germany shows.

The researchers found that ' performance was on a par with that previously reported in baboons for this type of complex task. Their study, which is published in the prestigious international journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), is the first to identify a non-primate species as having "orthographic" abilities.

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.

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-.

Professor Onur Güntürkün, one of the co-investigators from of Ruhr University's Department of Biopsychology, says "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, says "we may have to seriously re-think the use of the term 'bird brain' as a put down."

Explore further: Study suggests similarity between how pigeons learn the equivalent of words and the way children do

More information: Damian Scarf et al. Orthographic processing in pigeons (), Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (2016). DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1607870113

Related Stories

Like monkeys, pigeons can put numbers in order

December 22, 2011

(PhysOrg.com) -- Pigeons are on par with primates in their numerical abilities, according to new University of Otago research appearing in the leading international journal Science.

Recommended for you

Houseplants could one day monitor home health

July 20, 2018

In a perspective published in the July 20 issue of Science, Neal Stewart and his University of Tennessee coauthors explore the future of houseplants as aesthetically pleasing and functional sirens of home health.

LC10 – the neuron that tracks fruit flies

July 20, 2018

Many animals rely on vision to detect, locate, and track moving objects. Male Drosophila fruit flies primarily use visual cues to stay close to a female and to direct their courtship song towards her. Scientists from the ...

Putting bacteria to work

July 20, 2018

The idea of bacteria as diverse, complex perceptive entities that can hunt prey in packs, remember past experiences and interact with the moods and perceptions of their human hosts sounds like the plot of some low-budget ...

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.