London: According to a recent study conducted at University of Otago in New Zealand and Ruhr University in Germany pigeons could actually be smarter than perceived earlier as they possess the ability to ‘read’.
The feathered creatures can learn to distinguish real words from non-words by looking at their letter combinations, reports Daily Mail.
The study, touted to be the first of its kind, proves that a non-primate species has ‘orthographic abilities’ that is the capability to recognize a three-dimensional object represented in two dimensions, such as a word.
In the experiment, researchers from, a group of 18 pigeons whittled down to four of the brainiest birds, which were trained over the course of eight months.
The researchers used a process called ‘autoshaping’ to do this. The process involved shining a light through three holes to get the birds’s attention, shortly after that food was presented in a tiny tray.
After the process was completed several times, the pigeons eventually learned that food follows the flashing of the light, causing them to peck the light in anticipation of a snack.
The pigeons were trained to peck four-letter words that came up in the three holes or to peck a star symbol when a non-word, such as ‘URSP’ was displayed.
The team added words one by one with the four pigeons in the study building up vocabularies ranging from 26 to 58 words and more than 8,000 non-words.
To establish whether the pigeons were learning to actually distinguish words from non-words rather than merely memorising them, the researchers introduced words that the birds had never seen before.
Somewhat surprisingly, the pigeons were able to identify the new words as words, at a significant rate.
According to lead researcher Damian Scarf said the birds were able to do this by tracking the likelihood that letter pairings such as ‘EN’ and ‘AL’ were more likely to be associated by words than non-words.
Co-researcher Onur Gunturkun said, “Pigeons, separated by 300 million years of evolution from humans and having vastly different brain architectures, show such a skill as orthographic processing is astonishing’.
The researchers also believed that a controversial theory called ‘neuronal recycling’ may account for the bird’s reading ability.
The theory attempts to explain how humans developed the ability to read and write. It suggests that rather than human brains physically evolving to enable reading, neurons may have shifted their functions in order to attach words to images and objects, effectively attaching meaning.
However, there’s no evidence to suggest that the pigeons were actually able to attach meanings to the words they recognised, as humans do.
“We may have to seriously re-think the use of the term ‘bird brain’ as a put down,” added co-author Michael Colombo.
The researchers believe that the study provides further evidence that birds are ideal for use in studies seeking to investigate the origins of language.
The research was published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences