Researchers have found that pigeons have the human-like ability to place everyday things in categories. According to researchers at the University of Iowa, pigeons can place everyday things in categories and, like people, they can hone in on visual information that is new or important and dismiss what is not.
“The basic concept at play is selective attention. That is, in a complex world, with its booming, buzzing confusion, we don’t attend to all properties of our environment. We attend to those that are novel or relevant,” said Ed Wasserman, UI psychology professor and secondary author on the study.
Selective attention has traditionally been viewed as unique to humans. But as UI research scientist and lead author of the study Leyre Castro explained, scientists now know that discerning one category from another is vital to survival.
“All animals in the wild need to distinguish what might be food from what might be poison, and, of course be able to single out predators from harmless creatures,” Castro said. Other creatures seem to follow the same thought process humans do when it comes to making these distinctions, the study found.
According to the study, learning about an object’s relevant characteristics and using those characteristics to categorise it go hand-in-hand. “When observing pigeons, we thought they would learn what was relevant (step one) and then learn the appropriate response (step two),” Wasserman said.
But instead, the researchers found that learning and categorisation seemed to occur simultaneously in the brain. To test how, and indeed whether, animals like pigeons use selective attention, Wasserman and Castro presented the birds with a touchscreen containing two sets of four computer-generated images—such as stars, spirals, and bubbles.
The pigeons had to determine what distinguished one set from the other. By monitoring what images the pigeons pecked on the touchscreen, researchers were able to determine what the birds were looking at. They tested whether the pigeons will peck at the relevant, distinguishing characteristics of each set – in this case the stars and the bubbles.
The answer was yes, suggesting that pigeons – like humans – use selective attention to place objects in appropriate categories. According to the researchers, the finding can be extended to other animals like lizards and goldfish. “Because a pigeon’s beak is midway between its eyes, we have a pretty good idea that where it is looking is where it is pecking. This could be true of any bird or fish or reptile,” Wasserman said.
The study was published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: Animal Learning and Cognition.