Monday, July 04, 2011

Pigeons Can Remember Faces Too

In my last Loose Feathers, I linked to an article about research showing that wild crows can recognize people by their faces, particularly when the people in question might pose a threat. In that case, some scientists doing a banding study in Seattle noticed that crows started mobbing them whenever they returned to a banding site where crows had been caught and banded. So they ran some experiments, which you can read about at the link, and determined that the crows were most likely responding to their faces rather than their garments or other accessories. Not only that, but crows could remember those faces for years afterwards, and the information that those faces were dangerous spread through the crows' social networks.

Another recent study found that feral pigeons have a similar ability to recognize faces.
Previous research in this arena had only focused on the perception abilities of pigeons that were trained in a lab environment, but the new study was conducted on untrained feral pigeons. At a park in Paris, two researchers of similar build and skin color, but wearing different-colored lab coats, fed a group of pigeons.

One researcher ignored the pigeons after feeding them, allowing them to eat the food, while the other was hostile and chased them away. This was followed by a second session when neither researcher chased away the pigeons.

The experiment was repeated several times, with the pigeons continuously recognizing the individuals and avoiding the researcher who had first chased them away even when the participant no longer did so. Swapping lab coats during the experiments did not confuse the pigeons, and they continued to stay away from the researcher who had been initially hostile.

"It is very likely that the pigeons recognized the researchers by their faces, since the individuals were both female and of a similar age, build and skin color," study researcher Dalila Bovet of the University of Paris Ouest Nanterre La Défense said in a statement.

"Interestingly, the pigeons, without training, spontaneously used the most relevant characteristics of the individuals (probably facial traits), instead of the lab coats that covered 90 percent of the body," Bovet added.
It would be interesting to see whether pigeons have a long-term memory, as crows do, and if information about the threat is spread socially.