A new study has emerged that suggests that pigeons might be able to read, or at least distinguish words from non-words.
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This makes pigeons one of the few animals that can be taught how to read, including humans, monkeys, and a singular dog named Willow. Scientists from the University of Otago in New Zealand started the experiment with 18 pigeons and whittled them down to the smartest four using something called autoshaping, which involves flashing a light through a hole to get the attention and then distributing food.
With enough repeats, the subject will learn that the light means food, so the birds will start pecking at the light.
"After hopper training, an autoshaping procedure was used until subjects were consistently pecking stimuli presented in any of the three apertures," the researchers explain. "After shaping, subjects were presented with their first word."
The "word" was one of a series of simple English words such as "very" whereas a "non-word' which is a series of letters that equate to nonsense. The experiment involved something called a star stimulus, which was a star icon that the bird was trained to peck if they thought that there were being shown an incorrect word. Each time the bird was correct, they were rewarded with food.
The star stimulus appeared in different positions that were easily visible.
"Word and non-word stimuli were presented in the centre square aperture," the researchers explained. "When a word was presented in the centre aperture, the correct response was to peck the word. When a non-word was presented in the centre aperture, the correct response was to peck the star stimulus."
Each pigeon saw the first word 50 times mixed with a number of non-words. Once they were masters of that word, another word was added. The four smartest birds learned a mean of 43 words, which each one training for over eight months.
The pigeons did well, with one bird learning 58 words.
The also did something called orthographic processing, which is the visual system that allows the brain to form, store, and recall words. It is the same process humans use to learn how to read.
In some tests, the pigeons performed batter than baboons.
"On this measure, the pigeons’ performance is actually more comparable to that of literate humans than the baboons’ performance," the researchers wrote. "Indeed, pigeons’ differential performance on known words and transposed words suggests they were highly sensitive to the relative position of the letters within words."
The results have been published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.