Study Shows Pigeons Are Crazy Smart

They understand abstract concepts of space and time.

Ever get a feeling like the pigeons are watching you? Their little beady eyes trained on yours. Those unsettling, knowing noises they make. They are among the more creepy and cunning birds that one encounters on one’s lunch break. And new research has shown that they’re crazy intelligent, too.

According to new research from the University of Iowa, pigeons are able to comprehend abstract concepts of time and space in the same ways that elephants, monkeys, and humans can.


The study, published in Current Biology, examines how pigeons are able to conceive of abstract concepts. Pigeons were shown either short or long horizontal lines on computer screens, and were made to distinguish between them by being offered a reward for pecking at the shorter line. Scientists gradually made this task more difficult by displaying the lines for shorter and longer periods of time, or moving them around on screen—and the pigeons, little grey feathered geniuses that they are, associated longer lines with a longer screen duration.

This is actually pretty impressive and interesting—it shows that pigeons use the same part of their brains to judge the concepts of space and time, seeing a relationship between the two. Humans and monkeys do it too: we perceive time in relation to space, and this grounds us in a concept of living in the present. We’re able to differentiate between yesterday, today, and tomorrow.

Pigeons, the philosopher kings of the pavement. Mulling over concepts of space and time as they pick through the trash for food. An exaggeration, yes, but as the study’s lead author Edward Wasserman says in an accompanying press statement, birds are much smarter than we’ve given them credit for.

“Indeed, the cognitive prowess of birds is now deemed to be ever closer to that of both human and nonhuman primates…Those avian nervous systems are capable of far greater achievements than the pejorative term ‘bird brain’ would suggest.”

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