An further note on pigeon intelligence, or lack of…

Yesterday’s bird of the week post on the Wood Pigeon mentioned the idea that domesticated pigeons may be smarter (“pigeon supremacist literature” as one person labelled it on Twitter!). But here’s a story that may cast doubt on that.Last week a feral pigeon came and sat next to me at lunch, clearly curious as to whether I was willing to share. I didn’t actually have any food on me, so I held my hand out to show it was empty. The pigeon had a look then started to wander off.

At this point I closed my hand back into a fist, and the pigeon immediately became interested again. It could no longer see there was no food, which in it’s mind meant there may be food. So back it came.

Again I opened my hand, again it looked and wandered off. I closed my fist, back it came.

I repeated this six times, and every time the pigeon came back to see what might be in my hand. The bird was unable to connect the events, was unable to retain the information that this was not a valid food source.

It may sound like a silly thing, but actually it is fundamental to feeding strategies. The smarter bird species build up a mental map of where to food and what to eat. The really smart ones can engage in complex behaviours that allow them to hide food from others, or even watch food being hidden then steal it.

But as a grazer, the pigeon doesn’t need any such complex intelligence. Hence it doesn’t have it. So it cannot make the same connections a magpie or crow would make first time round.

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I welcome thoughts, comments and questions, so please feel free to share anything at all. Thanks, David

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