Can Pigeons Read?

Reading as we know it comes from two important elements. One is the ability to decode, which is a trait known to humans and how we use language. While some studies have been used to see how well animals can learn this skill, like speaking (the most infamous maybe the work of the Communication Institute of St. Thomas founded by the illustrious anthropologist Gregory Bateson and neuroscientist John Lilly that attempted to teach dolphins to speak to humans), this is often considered a singularly human trait.

The other element is known as orthographic knowledge, or the ability to detect words. It turns out, this may be an ancient evolutionary trait, shared with species as distant as pigeons. A joint team of scientists from the University of Otago, New Zealand, and Ruhr-University Bochum, Germany, determined that pigeons can be taught to recognize certain words. They also could learn to detect patterns to possibly identify words from non-words. Pigeons could learn to detect as many as 58 words. However, pigeons are far less adept at learning vocabulary as other primates, like baboons. Baboons could understand, on average, 139 words, to the average pigeons 43.

In short, to say that pigeons can read is a rather a truthful hyperbole. This amazing research, however, does demonstrate that pigeons and many other species quite separate from us have some of the essential building blocks that allowed our ancestors to create language. Hopefully, further research will illuminate what else such a connection may mean for the development of language.

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