We’ve all seen the bumper stickers proclaiming that the parent driving the minivan in front of us is proud of their honor student. You’ve probably also seen the sarcastic variety that a person’s dog is smarter than someone’s honor student. Well, get ready for a pigeon version to pop up soon because the latest word on the street is that pigeons can read. Who knows, that pigeon pecking around in the park may be smarter than both your honor student and your dog.
Don’t rush out to adopt a pigeon as a pet just yet, though (unless you really like birds, then go ahead). As you might have guessed, the idea that pigeons can read was a little too good to be true. A study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences did determine that these birds do know a bit about the English language. Much like a child who has never been taught how to read, only pigeons that have been trained recognize anything having to do with English.
It has been discovered that those pigeons who study can actually pick out real English words from fake English words. While the birds don’t know what any of these words mean, by studying the various combinations of letters they’re looking at, they can determine what’s real and what’s fake. Although this isn’t quite reading, one of the authors of the study, Damian Scarf, mentioned that recognizing words is one of the “building blocks” towards full-fledged reading.
Where do you start when trying to determine if pigeons can read? The scientists started with simple words and decided to utilize the birds’ beaks. Pigeons were placed in a confined area facing a screen. Every so often, the screen would display four letters and a symbol. The four letters either formed a valid English word or they didn’t. If the pigeon thought the word was valid, they were to peck the word; otherwise, they should peck the symbol. If they were right, the scientists rewarded them with food.
The purpose of determining whether pigeons can read was to learn more about how the human brain evolved in order to learn how to read. Whether you realized it or not, you did the same exercise as the pigeons while you were learning how to read. We all have an area of our brain called visual word form area. This section allows us to distinguish real words from fake ones by the combination they’re in.
Of course, words didn’t always exist, so why do we even have this area of the brain for them? Thanks to something called neuronal recycling, humans have stopped using the visual word form area to recognize things like objects and instead use the area for word recognition.