When you think of smart animals, what are some of the first species that come to mind? Many people might say dogs, chimpanzees, dolphins, or even pigs. These animals are indeed some of the smartest in the world, but there is one animal with formidable wits that many people don’t realize is one of the smartest species there is… the pigeon! This intelligent bird often gets labelled as dim-witted, but in reality the pigeon has been observed using human made structures for navigation, is considered self-aware, and can even be cultured in the arts.
Just like people, pigeons are known to use roads to navigate where they are going. Instead of attempting to fly straight to their desired location (or as the crow flies), pigeons can follow familiar roads, railway tracks, and even rivers. In a study by Oxford University, researchers attached tracking devices to a number of birds and found that time after time, pigeons would continuously follow the same paths down streets. They even knew which exits to take when approaching roundabouts. While travelling this way takes up more energy, they concluded that this method was less mentally demanding for the bird.
Not only can pigeons be great with directions, but they are one of the few animals that have passed the mirror test. The mirror test is a test done on animals with a mirror to determine if they are able to identify themselves. In one study done by Lafayette College, researchers placed a blue dot on the feathers of pigeons which went unnoticed at first. Once the mirror was uncovered, the pigeons noticed the blue dot in the mirror, found it on their feathers and touched it with their beaks. This makes pigeons one of the few animals that pass the mirror test along with chimpanzees, orangutans, elephants, dolphins and a few more species. It also means that pigeons are more self aware than the average 1-year-old human.
Self-recognition is nothing to scoff at, but what may be pigeons most fascinating feat is their ability to recognize human art. In 1995 at Keio University in Japan, researchers conducted a test on a number of pigeons. In this experiment, they put the pigeons in front of a button and showed them different paintings by Monet and Picasso. Every time the pigeons clicked the button when a painting by Monet popped up, the researchers awarded the pigeons with a treat. They switched and did the same with Picasso’s paintings. After a while, the pigeons were able to determine which painting was by which artist from a select number of paintings, getting the correct answer around 90% of the time. The truly amazing part is that the researchers began showing new paintings not originally shown to the pigeons, and the birds still chose the correct artist the majority of the time. Even when the painting was shown in black and white, or inverted, the pigeons still were able to select the correct answer, meaning that the pigeons were matching the artists with the paintings based off of style alone.
The accomplishments of pigeons could make anyone question their choice of words the next time they want to use the phrase ‘bird brain.’ Although they may not be the first species that come to mind when thinking of animal intelligence, pigeons can definitely hold their own against some of the smartest species in the world.