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Pigeons: Bird brains, geniuses, or both?

January 13, 2011


By now, most of us know that the term “bird brain” is an insult to the class Aves, many of whom are quite brilliant, even by human standards (for example, Alex the parrot taught us that birds could use language in complex ways). A study in the

(c) Alan D. Wilson

Journal of Comparative Psychology last year demonstrated that pigeons (Columba livia, or rock doves — the same birds we see on our city streets) were better than humans at picking the optimal strategy in a probability game called the “Monty Hall Dilemma” (after the game show Let’s Make a Deal). This was true even after the humans underwent training to try and improve their choices.

Why? Perhaps this skill benefits pigeons, who like all wildlife must choose where they forage carefully — if they spend a lot of effort to find food where food isn’t plentiful, they’ve just exerted energy without being able to refuel. This study is a nice

(c) Selena von Eichendorf

reminder that animals of all types are smart in the ways they need to be smart. Apparently most humans — including the mathematician mentioned in the article — would fail miserably at being pigeons.


Herbranson, Walter T. and Schroeder, Julia. 2010. Are birds smarter than mathematicians? Pigeons (Columba livia) perform optimally on a version of the Monty Hall Dilemma. Journal of Comparative Psychology 124(1): 1-13.

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