It may come as a surprise to learn that pigeons are pretty smart. We certainly don’t think of them that way, and it’s safe to say that most people think of them as pests, but they’re smarter than the average bird, or a number of other animals, it seems. A recent study by researchers from the University of Iowa determined that pigeons can learn and categorize words much like human children do.
The pigeons in the study were rewarded whenever they matched a picture to an appropriate icon for that picture’s category. They were shown 128 different pictures, each connected to two different icons, one right and one wrong. Categories included things like dog, tree, phone, and shoe.
Some of those categories would be more relevant to the average pigeon than others, which makes this study even more interesting. Not only could pigeons identify photos of dogs as different than photos of trees, but they could distinguish phones from shoes. That means they don’t need to have some instinctual understanding of the items in the categories to understand them as categories.
The study has given us some insight into how children learn words as well. Because children need to learn thousands of words, often without any real context, at early stages they are often grouped into categories. If you don’t, for example, realize that a German shepherd and a poodle are both dogs, you could easily think they’re too different things, but by learning the category “dog,” children make learning words easier for themselves.
The process by which children learn all those words is something that we don’t fully understand yet, and which we long thought was unique to humans. As we develop better methods for studying animal intelligence though, we’re starting to find more and more similarities between animal and human brains. And the better we understand either, the better we can understand both.