Bird brains not so stupid: pigeons show human-like ability to build knowledge through generations

Homing pigeons return from Pennsylvania to their home in New York City

(; Photo: Jim Cooper; 18 April)

Having, literally, bird brains, pigeons are not generally considered to be the most intelligent of creatures.

But new research reveals that in a crucial respect they are more like humans than any other.

Scientists at Oxford University found that homing pigeons are the only known species in the world other than humans able to build and pass on wisdom across the generations.

While many animals teach basic skills to their young, such as learning to hunt, until now none had shown it was possible to improve the collective ability of their species in the way mankind becomes ever more advanced.

But the scientists found that in the case of homing pigeons, families of the bird were able to improve their efficiency navigating across large distances over time.

They sent pairs of the homing pigeons off on a specific route, and then continuously replaced one experienced bird from a couple with an inexperienced one who had never flown the course before.

The experiment was designed to establish whether individual birds could pass their experience of the route down to the next pairing, and to see if the collective intelligence of the group improved so that their efficiency over the route improved.

Published in the journal Nature Communications, the study showed that the group’s homing performance got consistently better, and that each new pair of pigeons flew a more streamlined route over the course.

The homing pigeon navigates by means of magnetoreception, which allows it to detect a magnetic field to perceive direction, altitude and location.

In the study, later generation groups were found to outperform those who flew solo or as part of pairing which never changed.

Dr Takao Sasaki, who co-led the research, said: “At one stage scientists thought that only humans had the cognitive capacity to accumulate knowledge as a society.

“Our study shows that pigeons share these abilities with humans, at least to the extent that they are capable of improving on a behavioural solution progressively over time.”

The Oxford team pointed out, however…..

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