BIRDS of a feather not only flock together, but learn together too – according to Oxford University research.

Boffins from the university have discovered that homing pigeons may share the human capacity to learn from others and improve their navigational efficiency over time.

Until now it was thought that being able to pass on and improve knowledge down the generations was something only humans and possibly some other primates could do.

But Takao Sasaki and Dora Biro, who are both research associates in the Department of Zoology, conducted a study testing whether pigeons could improve their flight paths over time.

The pair gave groups of birds a specific navigational task and then replaced birds familiar with the route with inexperienced birds which had never flown the route before.

They found that, over time, the student became the teacher as the pairs’s homing performance consistently improved, with later ‘generation’ groups eventually outperforming birds that flew solo or in groups that never changed membership.

Dr Sasaki 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.”

When humans share and pass knowledge down through generations our culture tends to become more complex over time.

By contrast when homing pigeons do it the end result is an increase in efficiency, in this case navigational.

Dr Biro said: “One key novelty, we think, is that the gradual improvement we see is not due to new ‘ideas’ about how to improve the route being introduced by individual birds.

“Instead, the necessary innovations in each generation come from a form of collective intelligence that arises through pairs of birds having to solve the problem together – in other words through ‘two heads being better than one’.”

The findings of the study are published today in the journal Nature Communications.

Dr Sasaki and Dr Biro now intend to build on the study by investigating if a similar style of knowledge sharing happens in other species’ social groups.

Lots of animal groups have to solve the same problems repeatedly and they may use feedback from past outcomes to help them make better decision in the future.

But Keith Shipperley, assistant secretary of City of Oxford Racing Pigeon Club, said he was sceptical of the findings.

The Headington resident, who has raced pigeons since 1965, said: “It would surprise me greatly. There are not many pairs where one is a winner and they breed a winner.

“You would have a great difficulty convincing me.

“Winners are rare, if you want to buy the babies of a champion pigeon you are talking about £25,000 to £30,000.

“These champion pigeons are few and far between”


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