You can teach pigeons how to read, says a new study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The birds can even differentiate actual words from other ‘nonsense’ sounds.
A group of 18 pigeons were initiated to distinguish between words by a team of scientists from New Zealand’s University of Otago. The learning process was based on a conditioning system named autoshaping whereby the birds were made to associate a stimulus with a reward: the researchers flashed a light towards the pigeons through a hole just before providing them with food on a hopper. The birds ultimately began reacting to the light, and they would peck at it as though it were their meal.
Further down in the experiment, the stimuli were replaced by words. The animals were presented with actual meaningful words (such as the word “very”) as opposed to ‘non-words’, alphabets strung together but having no meaning (like “vrey”).
Later on, the researchers introduced another stimulus in the form of a star icon: the pigeons had to peck at it if they were being shown an incorrect word. Otherwise, when they would successfully distinguish between a word and a non-word, they would be rewarded with food.
“Word and non-word stimuli were presented in the centre square aperture,” explain the researchers. “When a word was presented in the centre aperture, the correct response was to peck the word. When a non-word was presented in the centre aperture, the correct response was to peck the star stimulus.”
The birds, thus, learned a series of words. Four of them even incorporated the ‘understanding’ of an average of 43 words. This happened over a period of training lasting for more than 8 months.
Another interesting finding is that the pigeons could also make the difference between familiar words and new ones. Furthermore, the 4 wittiest birds of the group outdid baboons in a particular test where they had to form, store, and remember words, a visual process used by humans to learn spelling.
“On this measure, the pigeons’ performance is actually more comparable to that of literate humans than the baboons’ performance,” write the researchers.
“Indeed, pigeons’ differential performance on known words and transposed words suggests they were highly sensitive to the relative position of the letters within words.”
It is to be noted, though, that the pigeons are not learning the words with their meaning. They are only associating the correct words with the reward (the food given to them as reward); they do not know the meaning of the words. They are not actually being taught how to read, but they are, rather, being conditioned to identify words and link them to a certain ‘meaning’ (that they would be fed).
“These findings demonstrate that visual systems neither genetically nor organisationally similar to humans can be recycled to represent the orthographic code that defines words,” the researchers conclude.