Today in Terrifying Bird News, Pigeons Know How to Read

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Photo: Joe Fox Photography/Getty Images

It’s official: The game of one-upmanship among terrifyingly intelligent birds has reached new heights that are, well, terrifying. Pigeons can recognize human faces? Cool, crows can solve logic puzzles. Not to be outdone, pigeons figured out touch screens. Okay, but crows can also use tools — which, never mind, that’s less impressive than the fact that pigeons can read.

Well, sort of. In a study published last week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, as Popular Science recently reported, scientists taught pigeons to memorize certain words. The study authors spent several months training 18 pigeons to differentiate between words and random strings of letters, eventually whittling the pool down to the four birds that showed the most promise; each of the remaining pigeons ended up learning somewhere between 26 and 58 words.

By the end, the pigeons could even tell when their words were misspelled — they could recognize the difference between “very” and “vrey,” for example. The “transposed letter effect,” the researchers wrote, happens when mixed-up letter strings are misclassified as real words, like failing to see a difference between “vrey” and “very”; it often happens in children learning to read, though not in adults. Or, apparently, in pigeons. (Read another way, pigeons are harder to fool than human children, which is not a thing I enjoy thinking about.)

Of course, the birds didn’t learn words the way we know words. They didn’t understand the sounds the letters represented, or their meanings; they just learned certain visual patterns and committed them to memory. But that learning process actually echoes how humans learn to read: Our brains have a section dedicated to processing letters, the visual word-form area, which scientists believe was repurposed over time from an area that handled visual recognition more broadly. These pigeons, the study authors wrote, show some evidence that a similar thing can happen in other species, too. As they put it, “Our findings demonstrate that visual systems organizationally distinct from the primate visual system can also be exapted or recycled to process the visual word form.” In other words, it’s only a matter of time before the pigeons take over. And if they fail, the crows aren’t far behind.