By Elizabeth Pennisi
By standing on the shoulders of giants, humans have built the sophisticated high-tech world we live in today. Tapping into the knowledge of previous generations—and those around us—was long thought to be a “humans-only” trait. But homing pigeons can also build collective knowledge banks, behavioral biologists have discovered, at least when it comes to finding their way back to the roost. Like humans, the birds work together and pass on information that lets them get better and better at solving problems.
“It is a really exciting development in this field,” says Christine Caldwell, a psychologist at the University of Stirling in the United Kingdom who was not involved with the work.
Researchers have admired pigeon intelligence for decades. Previous work has shown the birds are capable of everything from symbolic communication to rudimentary math. They also use a wide range of cues to find their way home, including smell, sight, sound, and magnetism. On its own, a pigeon released multiple times from the same place will even modify its navigation over time for a more optimal route home. The birds also learn specific routes from one another. Because flocks of pigeons tend to take more direct flights home than individuals, scientists have long thought some sort of “collective intelligence” is at work.
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