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Study turns pigeons into “art critics”

June 19, 2009
World Science staff

You can have an eye for art. Or, you can have a bird’s eye view of some­thing.

But both at the same time?

A Jap­a­nese re­search­er is re­port­ing that he has trained pi­geons to tell apart “good” and “bad” chil­dren’s paint­ings, in the process mak­ing judg­ments that largely agree with those of hu­man view­ers.

Can animals make artistic judg­ments? A re­search­er claims to have trained pi­geons to tell apart “good” and “bad” chil­dren’s paint­ings 


Wheth­er the birds are weigh­ing the works based on ar­tis­tic mer­it, or on some oth­er char­ac­ter­is­tic or cue, may not be fully as­cer­tain­a­ble. But some­how, the avians could dis­tin­guish be­tween pic­tures pre­vi­ously rat­ed as good or bad by adults, ac­cord­ing to psy­chol­o­gist Shigeru Watan­abe of Keio Un­ivers­ity in To­kyo.

Per­haps pi­geons can “learn the con­cept of ‘beau­ty’ as de­fined by hu­mans,” wrote Watan­abe in the stu­dy, pub­lished in the June 16 is­sue of the re­search jour­nal An­i­mal Cog­ni­tion.

Watan­abe first asked a group of adults to judge sev­er­al chil­dren’s paint­ings. Soph­is­t­icated eva­lu­a­tions weren’t re­quested: the view­ers were simply asked to rate the works as “good” or “bad”—that is, beau­ti­ful or ugly.

Lat­er, pi­geons were trained, through dis­pensa­t­ion of treats, to peck at “good” paint­ings. Peck­ing at “bad” ones would net them no re­ward. 

Af­ter some train­ing, pi­geons were shown new pic­tures “of both ‘good’ and ‘bad’ chil­dren’s paint­ings to test wheth­er they had suc­cess­fully learn­ed to dis­crim­i­nate” be­tween the two, Watan­abe wrote. They had, he found.

Pi­geons con­tin­ued to per­form rel­a­tively well at the task when pre­sented with reduced-size re­pro­duc­tions, he added. They got worse at it when the pic­tures were con­vert­ed in­to black-and-white re­pro­duc­tions or re­pro­duced with a mo­sa­ic ef­fect ap­plied.

“The re­sults sug­gest that the pi­geons used both col­or and pat­tern cues for the dis­crimina­t­ion and show that non-human an­i­mals, such as pi­geons, can be trained to dis­criminate ab­stract vis­u­al stim­uli,” he wrote.


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You can have an eye for art. Or, you can have a bird’s eye view of something. But both at the same time? A Japanese researcher is reporting that he has trained pigeons to tell apart “good” and “bad” children’s paintings, making distinctions that largely agree with ordinary people’s judgments. Whether the birds are judging the works based on artistic quality, or on some other characteristic or cue, may not be fully ascertainable. But somehow, the birds can distinguish between pictures previously rated as good or bad by adults, according to psychologist Shigeru Watanabe of Keio University in Tokyo. Perhaps, indeed, pigeons can “have the ability to learn the concept of ‘beauty’ as defined by humans,” wrote Watanabe in the study, published in the June 16 issue of the research journal Animal Cognition. Watanabe first asked a group of adults to judge several children’s paintings. Sophisticated judgments weren’t requested: the adults were simply asked to rate the products as “good” or “bad”—beautiful or ugly. Later, pigeons were trained, through dispensation of treats, to peck at “good” paintings. Pecking at “bad” ones would net them no reward. After some training, pigeons were shown new pictures “of both ‘good’ and ‘bad’ children’s paintings to test whether they had successfully learned to discriminate,” between the two, Watanabe wrote. They had, he found. Pigeons continued to perform relatively well at the task when presented with reduced-size reproductions, he added. They got worse at it when the pictures were converted into black-and-white reproductions or reproduced with a mosaic effect applied. “The results suggest that the pigeons used both color and pattern cues for the discrimination and show that non-human animals, such as pigeons, can be trained to discriminate abstract visual stimuli,” he wrote.