Think only humans can build on the knowledge of previous generations? Meet these pigeons

Apr 18, 2017

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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One comment on “Think only humans can build on the knowledge of previous generations? Meet these pigeons”

  • @OP – 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.

    . . . and while domesticated birds can be studied close up, the technologies for mapping and studying wilds species, continue to give progressively more detailed data!

    http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-39797373

    Scientists have started counting individual birds from space.

    They are using the highest-resolution satellite images available to gauge the numbers of Northern Royal albatrosses.

    This endangered animal nests almost exclusively on some rocky sea-stacks close to New Zealand’s Chatham Islands.

    The audit, led by experts at the British Antarctic Survey, represents the first time any species on Earth has had its entire global population assessed from orbit.

    The scientists report the satellite technique in Ibis, a journal of the British Ornithologists’ Union.

    “Getting the people, ships or planes to these islands to count the birds is expensive, but it can be very dangerous as well,” explained Dr Peter Fretwell from BAS.

    This makes the DigitalGlobe WorldView-3 satellite something of a breakthrough.

    It can acquire pictures of Earth that capture features as small as 30cm across.

    The US government has only recently permitted such keen resolution to be distributed outside of the military and intelligence sectors.

    WorldView-3 can see the nesting birds as they sit on eggs to incubate them or as they guard newly hatched chicks.

    With a body length of over a metre, the adult albatrosses only show up as two or three pixels, but their white plumage makes them stand out against the surrounding vegetation. The BAS team literally counts the dots.

    . . . So while the scientific capabilities have been available for some time, they have previously been restricted to use by the military!



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