Let’s hear it for pigeons


Pigeons successfully learned to discriminate color slides of paintings by Monet and Picasso.

Following this training, they discriminated novel paintings by Monet and Picasso that had never been presented during the discrimination training. Furthermore, they showed generalization from Monet’s to Cezanne’s and Renoir’s paintings or from Picasso’s to Braque’s and Matisse’s paintings….Porter and Neuringer (1984) reported successful learning of musical discrimination of Bach and Stravinsky by pigeons. 

Watanabe et al, Journal of the experimental analysis of behavior 1995, 639 165-174

As anyone who’s read Crane Mansions knows, Gert is a fount of esoteric information about pigeons. But even we didn’t know what we read in a recent article by Jon Day in the LRB (Vol 141 no 7, April 4 2019).  Pigeons have been trained to find people lost at sea by perceiving a floating scrap of coloured material floating in the sea.  Along with great apes, dolphins and elephants, they can recognise their own image in a mirror, and they recognise video footage of themselves. They can fly up to 110 miles per hour and travel as much as 700 miles in one flight. No wonder they were the express mail service of the Roman Empire, worked for Reuters and before the telegraph were used by the wealthy to keep in touch as they travelled.  And we all know about their role in wartime intelligence.

Who would believe it of the puffy, querulous birds that huddle on our fences and rooftops, seeming to do nothing much with their time? What a comedown. The least we can do is play them a bit of Stravinsky, or take them to an art gallery.


Image: Wikimedia Commons


9 thoughts on “Let’s hear it for pigeons

  1. Oh come on Gert! We all believed you Gerts knew all there is to know about pigeons, are you adding an addendum to Crane so as not to lead us willing followers astray?

    1. We know all about their prophetic qualities and that they are messengers from the noumenal world. We truly didn’t know they are connoisseurs of art and music.

    2. I like the “recognize themselves in mirrors part, and fly so immensely fast. Maybe why I sometimes have trouble capturing a good photo of them as they swirl around their homes under the Ship Creek bridge in Anchorage.

  2. I would like Stravinsky-loving pigeons to demonstrate their intelligence by coming up some new minimalist melodies—the irregular pacing of their their ostinato calls are currently doing my head in. Steve Reich they are not, however.

    1. John Cage’s 4.33?

      At least the pigeons on my fence speak French. They constantly croon pourquoi pas? pourquoi pas?

      And during the Obama/Romney election they were saying Obama, Obama.

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