String Task Teaches Pigeons To Peck At Virtual Dishes
May 29, 2013

String Task Teaches Pigeons To Peck At Virtual Dishes

Brett Smith for — Your Universe Online

A cursory examination of any pigeon´s behavior might suggest that the birds peck randomly at things that may or may not be there. However, a new study from a group of American and Japanese researchers showed that pigeons could learn to peck intelligently at a virtual food dish.

The study was based on the "string task," a tried-and-true intelligence test that involves attaching a treat to one of two strings and seeing if the human or animal test subject can pull the correct string to bring the treat closer.

For this experiment, the researchers decided to give the string test a 21st century update by using a computer touch screen with buttons that were connected to virtual dishes that appeared to be either full or empty. If the bird pecked the right button, the virtual full bowl would move closer, culminating in the pigeon being rewarded with actual food.

“The pigeons proved that they could indeed learn this task with a variety of different string configurations–even those that involved crossed strings, the most difficult of all configurations to learn with real strings,” said co-author Edward Wasserman, a professor of experimental psychology at the University of Iowa.

The team discovered that the pigeons chose the correct string between 74 percent and 90 percent of the time across the three different string configurations. The researchers said the robust results of their experiments suggested that the computer touchscreens could be used instead of conventional string experiments involving a variety of animal species.

The researchers also captured videos of the pigeons scanning and bobbing along the virtual string, “often looking toward and pecking at the dish as its moves down the screen,” the authors wrote, adding that the behavior means they understand the connection between the virtual strings and the dishes.

“We believe that our virtual string task represents a promising innovation in comparative and developmental psychology,” Wasserman said. “It may permit expanded exploration of other species and variables which would otherwise be unlikely because of inadequacies of conventional string task methodology or sensorimotor limitations of the organisms."

“These results not only testify to the power and versatility of our computerized string task, but they also demonstrate that pigeons can concurrently contend with a broad range of demanding patterned-string problems, thereby eliminating many alternative interpretations of their behavior,” the authors concluded.

Scientists aren´t the only ones noticing the intellectual prowess of the much-maligned urban birds. The Armenian-American blogger Antranik recently reported on a group of three pigeons that were photographed in a shopping mall in Brisbane, Australia. Apparently the birds observed humans drinking from a water fountain and learned how to get water out of the device.

Working as a team, one pigeon would sit on the drinking fountain´s lever to release water as one of its colleagues took a bath in the reservoir and the other took a drink. The birds would then rotate so that each would get a turn drinking or bathing.