Birds Have Skills Previously Described as “Uniquely Human”

Birds Have Skills Previously Described as “Uniquely Human”

by Jef Akst, The Scientist

Scientists are enlisting the help of pigeons, parrots, crows, jays, and other species to disprove the notion that human cognitive abilities are beyond those of other animals

After completing an undergraduate psychology course taught by Michael Colombo at the University of Otago in New Zealand, Damian Scarf was hooked on animal cognition. Colombo told Scarf how he and other behavioral researchers were demonstrating that nonhuman animals seemed to possess cognitive abilities that researchers had previously considered to be exclusively human. “Testing these human-unique abilities just seemed awesome, so I switched from zoology to psychology the following year,” Scarf recalls.

Scarf completed his PhD work in Colombo’s lab and is now a lecturer at the University of Otago, where he continues to test the ability of nonhuman animals to display traits supposedly unique to humans. Most of his work involves birds, which have repeatedly upended the concept of human uniqueness. For example, scientists have thoroughly documented the ability of Caledonian crows to use tools, a skill long believed to be employed only by humans. Similarly, researchers have shown that scrub jays remember past events and act accordingly. “And when it comes to numerical discriminations or word discriminations, pigeons have taken them all,” Scarf says.

This year, Scarf, Colombo, and their colleagues tested pigeons’ ability to recognize patterns of letters that appear in the English language. Nearly every day for two years, Scarf trained four pigeons. He would place the birds in a box with a touch screen, and then present the animals with either a real or fake four-letter word, along with a star below the letters. If the word was real, the birds were to touch it with their beaks; if it was fake, they were to touch the star. If the subjects answered correctly, they would get a bit of wheat. At the end of the training, the pigeons were able to recognize dozens of words—including ones they had never seen before—with about 70 percent accuracy.

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