Can Pigeons Spell? New Study Suggests They Can Recognize Words

By Eyder Peralta for npr.org

Take a look at this video:

If a word is spelled correctly, the pigeon has been taught to peck at the word. If it’s spelled incorrectly, the pigeon is supposed to peck at the star. When it gets it right, the machine hands it some food.

A group of researchers from New Zealand were able to train four pigeons to consistently — with 70 percent accuracy — recognize dozens of words. The smartest pigeon learned about 60 words that it could distinguish from about 1,000 non-words.

Their  study is published in the September issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. And it marks the first time that a non-primate has been found to have an orthographical brain. That means a brain that has the ability to recognize letters.

Damian Scarf, a lecturer at the University of Otago in New Zealand and the study’s lead author, says this kind of study is important because it might give us some insight into our own brain development.

Scarf says that because human brains don’t fossilize, we know very little about the cognitive abilities of our ancestors.

“But if you find something like this with pigeons, you can argue that it must’ve been common to our last common ancestor with pigeons, which is about 300 million years ago,” Scarf said. “So the same flexibility and plasticity of the human brain that lets us pick up on words and the statistics behind them must’ve been present when we were still joined with pigeons.”

Read more here.

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