Probably the second-worst thing that ever happened to pigeons was Woody Allen calling them “rats with wings” in 1980, prompting a bad reputation that the birds just haven’t been able to get rid of. (The worst thing that ever happened to pigeons was the extinction of the carrier pigeon in the late 1800s/early 1900s. These pigeons once existed in such multitudes, they would darken the sky for hours as they flew overhead; sadly, their sheer numbers led to a carefree attitude in hunting them, and they went from a population of millions to zero in a short time span.)
Contrary to popular belief, pigeons are quite interesting, useful animals. They were domesticated thousands of years ago (Darwin, in fact, was a little obsessed with pigeons), can be trained as athletes (called “racing pigeons”), mate for life (aww!), and have evolved to be able to digest a much wider variety of food than their ancestors. More recently, scientists in the U.S. and England have utilized pigeons to help collect data on air quality by strapping tiny, pigeon-sized backpacks onto the pigeons’ backs and tracking the data as the birds fly around.
They’re more reliable than your car’s GPS
Probably one of the most famous cool things about pigeons is their ability to always find their way home. You’ve probably heard of “homing pigeons” before, right? But how do they do it? Past studies have investigated the roles of olfactory cues, sun and magnetic compasses, and the use of long, linear landmarks such as roads, railway lines, and rivers. Interestingly enough, despite hundreds of years of research on the matter, there still doesn’t appear to be a consensus on how exactly pigeons have such an uncanny sense of direction.
In 2013, a study in the Journal of Experimental Biology found that homing pigeons use low-frequency sound waves, called infrasound waves, to make an acoustic mental map of their location. The researcher examined 14 years’ worth of data from 45,000 pigeons to determine that the only times the birds got lost were when these infrasound waves, due to wind or difficult terrain, were unable to reach the pigeons’ home loft. This sound block appears to have inhibited the birds’ ability to figure out their orientation relative to home, indicating that sound plays an important role in their ability to find their way home.
But in a 2015 study in Proceedings of the Royal Society B, scientists found that vision, too, plays a major role in homing pigeons’ abilities. The left and right halves of bird brains are thought to act more autonomously than ours, because they don’t have a corpus callosum, the part of the brain that passes information between brain hemispheres. So for this study, the researchers placed eye patches on first one, then the other, of the birds’ eyes to see how limited vision might affect their sense of direction. Two groups of birds were trained to return home, first with the left eye covered or first with the right eye covered. The pigeons formed new routes after switching eyes, meaning that their brain hemispheres do indeed learn and act independently.
It’s worth nothing that, despite having full use of both eyes and ears, plus the ability to read a map, I can recount multiple instances wherein I panicked because I was “lost,” only to find out I was within two or three blocks of home. Multiple instances, you guys. I would be a terrible pigeon.
They can detect cancer
So, pigeons have built-in GPSs. You still seem unimpressed. Well, did you know that pigeons can also detect cancer? Aha, now I’ve got your attention!
It’s true: a 2015 study in PLOS ONE found that pigeons, with a little training, can distinguish breast tissue from tumors on biopsy slides. The researchers showed 16 pigeons touchscreen images of microscope slides of either benign or malignant breast tissue, and within two weeks, the pigeons had achieved 85% accuracy in identifying malignancies. Interestingly, if the assessments of multiple pigeons on each slide were added together (the researchers called this “flock-sourcing,” which may be the cutest adaption of crowdsourcing I’ve ever seen), accuracy reached 99%. The pigeons had a harder time identifying suspicious masses in mammogram images, which, to be fair, is something doctors have trouble with too, even after of years of training.
Nonetheless, this suggests that pigeons could be used as trained medical image observers and could help researchers figure out better ways to train pathologists and computer systems by determining the impact of color, contrast, brightness, and image compression artifacts on diagnostic performance.
They’re highly intelligent
Which brings me back to my original point: pigeons are actually highly intelligent creatures. A 1995 study in the Journal of the Experimental Analysis of Behavior found that pigeons could distinguish between paintings by Monet and Picasso (though the study didn’t determine which artist the pigeons preferred, so we may never know if they’re more into cubism or impressionism). A 2008 study in Animal Cognition found that pigeons, like large-brained primates, recognize themselves in mirrors and videos.
In a study presented at the 2011 Society for Experimental Biology Annual Conference, researchers determined that feral, untrained pigeons can recognize individual people and are not fooled by a change of clothes. Two researchers, of similar build and skin color, wearing different-colored lab coats that covered most of their bodies, fed pigeons in a park. One of the researchers ignored the pigeons, whereas the other researcher shooed the pigeons away; in subsequent sessions, even when the “hostile” researcher acted neutrally toward the pigeons or switched lab coats with the other researcher, the pigeons recognized and avoided the “hostile” researcher.
Lest you think this is a one-off occurrence, a 2012 study in Avian Biology Research confirmed that pigeons can recognize a person they have encountered before, based strictly on facial characteristics. The researchers trained a group of pigeons to distinguish between photographs of familiar and unfamiliar objects. These pigeons, along with a control group that had not been trained, were then shown photographs of pairs of human faces, one familiar and one the pigeons had not previously seen. The trained birds were able to recognize and classify the familiar people using only their faces, whereas the birds without prior training failed.
So, to recap, pigeons can identify cancer, recognize human faces, and find their way home. Which leaves me with one burning question: do they also play fetch?
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