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Creation 40(4):16–18, October 2018

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Pigeon Revision: Brainy birds trump bookish baboons

Astonished scientists observe pigeons can match primate intelligence across multiple measures



Pigeons are a lot smarter than once thought, according to a study published in the prestigious PNAS journal.1

One of the study’s authors, Professor Michael Colombo, of the University of Otago in New Zealand, mused, “We may have to seriously re-think the use of the term ‘bird brain’ as a put down.”2

But first, some background.

The study was the latest research endeavour that among other things was trying to answer an evolutionary puzzle: Why can people read? This involves the capability for what is known as orthographic processing—being able to visually form, store and recall words, such as writing them in the air in front of you. The problem for evolutionists is that there hasn’t been enough time for the part of the human brain believed to be needed for reading fluency, namely, the visual word form area (VWFA) to have evolved:

“[T]he presence of a VWFA is difficult to assimilate with the fact that writing was invented merely 5,400 years ago, and only became widespread very recently in human history, making it impossible that an area of the human brain evolved specifically for reading. Without the time to evolve, how can we explain the presence of the VWFA?”1

To try to explain this, evolutionists came up with the idea that the VWFA must have evolved in our supposed non-human primate ancestors to give them this visual word-processing capability but for a purpose relevant to their savannah/jungle lifestyle. I.e., “A novel theory suggests that orthographic processing is the product of neuronal recycling, with visual circuits that evolved to code visual objects now co-opted to code words.”1

So there was excitement among the evolutionary fraternity when researchers found that baboons visually presented with four-letter strings could be trained to discriminate real (English) words from nonsense combinations of letters that resembled real words.3,4 To check that the animals weren’t simply doing this by merely memorizing words, the researchers introduced new words and non-words that the baboons had never seen before. As a further check, the researchers monitored the baboons’ performance when letters were transposed (e.g. DONE becoming DNOE)—considered to be “the hallmark of orthographic processing”.4 The baboons correctly identified the novel letter strings as words or non-words at a rate significantly above chance, indicating the baboons were not merely rote-learning visual patterns.

The fact that baboons could do this was huge news, given that it was “an ability previously thought to be unique to humans, and one for which the VWFA is purportedly critical.”1

Shifting focus from baboons to birds

The aforementioned Professor Colombo, his University of Otago colleague Dr Damien Scarf, and their co-workers at Ruhr University Bochum in Germany were sufficiently intrigued by the orthographic processing ability of baboons that they wondered if it was unique to primates. As they pointed out in the introduction to their paper, the neuron recycling hypothesis to explain the existence of the VWFA had been formulated with our brain and visual system in mind. However, “we have no idea whether a primate brain is a prerequisite for orthographic processing.”1

So to explore that further, the researchers set out to assess orthographic processing in pigeons, whose brain architecture and visual system are very different from that of both humans and baboons.

Adapting the baboon experiments’ food-reward system, the researchers set up a touchscreen so that if pigeons pecked the correct answers they received grains of wheat. Much to the researchers’ surprise, the pigeons’ ability to discriminate between words and non-words was on a par with that of the baboons. On the key parameters, the pigeons’ and baboons’ datasets were “indistinguishable” from each other. As the researchers wrote, “Astonishingly, we find that pigeons display every hallmark of orthographic processing displayed by Grainger et al.’s baboons.”1

What’s more, in one measure the pigeons’ achievements were “actually more comparable to that of literate humans than the baboons’ performance.”1

Numbers, too

The fact that pigeons could match monkeys in intelligence was not new to Damien Scarf, who several years earlier reported the phenomenon in numerosity, i.e. the ability to rank collections of objects numerically.5,6 Scarf had said at that time, “Our findings add to a growing body of evidence that pigeons are among a number of avian species exhibiting impressive mental abilities that really do give the lie to the old ‘bird brain’ insult.”7

A discerning eye for fine art

Subsequently Dr Scarf observed his pigeons have a discriminating eye in fine art as well, being able to distinguish between paintings by different artists, e.g. a Picasso from a Monet. Once the pigeons were familiar with an artist’s style, they could identify his work among paintings not previously shown to them. As Scarf explained, “they can discriminate between Picasso and Monet, and they can transfer to pictures of Picasso and Monet they’ve never seen before. And so it shows that they are picking up on the subtle differences between the two artists, which I don’t think I’d be able to do.”8 (Knowledgeable art lovers might disagree with Dr Scarf about the differences being ‘subtle’, but we won’t debate that here … .)

Other researchers had also previously reported this, even observing further that pigeons could more broadly distinguish the works of the Impressionists from others.9 I.e. pigeons “showed generalization from Monet’s to Cezanne’s and Renoir’s [all Impressionists] paintings or from Picasso’s to Braque’s and Matisse’s paintings.”10

Temporal and spatial concepts

Adding to all this is a recent study showing that pigeons are capable of grasping the abstract concepts of space and time,11 which humans are said to do using the brain region known as the cortex. However, bird brains don’t have a cortex, their brains being absolutely and proportionally way smaller than the human brain—one reason why the avian brain has been widely regarded by scientists as being inferior to that of primates. But there is a mounting body of evidence showing that pigeon brain capability has been woefully underestimated. This is forcing a dramatic and widespread revision in the scientific community’s view of the pigeon. As one of the space-and-time study co-researchers, Iowa University’s Edward Wasserman, said: “Those avian nervous systems are capable of far greater achievements than the pejorative term ‘bird brain’ would suggest. Indeed, the cognitive prowess of birds is now deemed to be ever closer to that of both human and nonhuman primates.”12

Surprise, surprise—but it shouldn’t be

Given the ever-growing body of research demonstrating birds’ brain power as being on a par with that of primates, why do we continue to hear these studies being labelled as “surprising”?2 It’s actually to do with the evolutionary worldview framework of the secular science community, as this statement from one of the pigeon literacy co-investigators, Onur Güntürkün, professor of behavioural neuroscience at Ruhr University, would indicate: “[the fact] that pigeons—separated by 300 million years of evolution from humans and having vastly different brain architectures—show such a skill as orthographic processing is astonishing”.1

Yes, it’s “astonishing” because the evolutionary framework posits that non-human primates, as supposedly ‘our closest evolutionary relatives’, rather than the ‘300-million-year’ evolutionarily-distant birds, would be the animals expected to most closely match humans in various measures of ‘intelligence’. But the evolutionary fraternity’s own observations of brainy birds, now spanning decades,13 highlights the fallacy of that evolution framework.

Also, impressive though the pigeons’ and baboons’ word-distinguishing abilities might be, there’s a huge gulf between us and them. Having acquired at most 308 four-letter words, their bookishness isn’t going to extend to ‘reading the classics’ anytime soon.1,14

Man—made in God’s image

The profound differences between their mental capacities and ours reinforces the biblical truth that man is not just another animal, but made in God’s image and placed as the federal head of creation (Genesis 1:26–28). This perfectly explains why it’s humans who have developed touchscreens and other experimental tools enabling the study and writing of research papers about animals, rather than the other way around. Research papers are intended to be read by people, not birds or baboons. It’s hugely ironic therefore, that the pigeon literacy research paper opens with this sentence: “On the surface, the human brain seems to have evolved for reading.”1

No, it was designed that way, that we might e.g. devote ourselves to the public and personal reading of Scripture (Matthew 19:4; 21:42; 1 Timothy 4:13; Revelation 1:3), useful for bringing us into right ways of thinking (2 Timothy 3:16). Compare that to the mindset of Dr Scarf and his colleagues, who in their paper took the evolutionary leap from their pigeon results to conclude that “birds are ideal models with which to investigate the origins of language.”1 The researchers also wrote that “pigeons’ conceptualization abilities make them an ideal animal model with which to investigate the early stages of human word learning.”1

So, we are to look to pigeons to understand human word learning?! Given the unfortunate influence of evolutionary thinking on education in many jurisdictions, one wonders what more wacky ideas our young people might be exposed to next.

Posted on homepage: 23 October 2019

References and notes

  1. Scarf, D., Boy, K., Uber Reinert, A., Devine, J., Güntürkün, O., and Colombo, M., Orthographic processing in pigeons (Columba livia), PNAS 113(40):11272–11276, 2016 | doi:10.1073/pnas.1607870113. Return to text.
  2. Pigeons have quite a way with words: Otago research, otago.ac.nz, 19 September 2016. Return to text.
  3. Grainger, J., Dufau, S., Montant, M., Ziegler, J., and Fagot J., Orthographic processing in baboons (Papio papio), Science 336(6078):245–248, 2012 | doi:10.1126/science.1218152. Return to text.
  4. Ziegler, J.C. et al., Transposed-letter effects reveal orthographic processing in baboons, Psychol. Sci. 24(8):1609–1611, 2013 | doi:10.1177/0956797612474322. Return to text.
  5. Scarf, D., Hayne, H., and Colombo, M., Pigeons on par with primates in numerical competence, Science 334(6063):1664, 23 December 2011 | doi:10.1126/science.1213357. Return to text.
  6. Number-savvy pigeons match monkeys, Creation 34(3):9, 2011; creation.com/number-savvy-pigeons. Return to text.
  7. Pigeons no bird brains when it comes to number sense: Otago research, otago.ac.nz, 23 December 2011. Return to text.
  8. Pigeons smarter than we thought, ABC Science Show, presented by Robyn Williams, broadcast 28 January 2017, transcript at abc.net.au. Return to text.
  9. Warner, J., Pecking birds can pick a Picasso, newscientist.com, 6 May1995. Return to text.
  10. Watanabe, S., Sakamoto, J., and Wakita, M., Pigeons’ discrimination of paintings by Monet and Picasso, J. Exp. Anal. Behav. 63(2):165–74, 1995 | doi:10.1901/jeab.1995.63-165. Return to text.
  11. De Corte, B., Navarro, V., and Wasserman, E., Non-cortical magnitude coding of space and time by pigeons, Current Biology 27(23):R1264–R1265, 4 December 2017 | doi:dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.cub.2017.10.029. Return to text.
  12. Weisberger, M., Brainy birds: Pigeons can understand distance and time, livescience.com, 4 December 2017. Return to text.
  13. See, e.g., Wieland, C., Bird-brain matches chimps (and neither makes it to grade school), Creation 19(1):47, 1996; creation.com/alex. Return to text.
  14. Taylor, M., Is it pigeon English?, odt.co.nz, 20 September 2016. Return to text.

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