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Paris pigeons remember human faces, ignore the clothes: scientists

July 5, 2011
Courtesy of the Society for Experimental Biology
and World Science staff

Free-roaming, un­trained pi­geons can rec­og­nize in­di­vid­ual peo­ple and aren’t fooled by changes of clothes, new re­search sug­gests.

Scientists who pre­sented the find­ings at the So­ci­e­ty for Ex­pe­ri­men­tal Bi­ol­o­gy An­nu­al Con­fer­ence in Glas­gow on July 3 said the ur­ban birds probably rec­og­nize peo­ple by their faces. Al­though lab-trained pi­geons have shown re­mark­a­ble feats of per­cep­tion, this is the first re­search show­ing si­m­i­lar abil­i­ties in un­trained fe­ral pi­geons, they added.

(Credit: Ahmed Belguermi)


In a park in Par­is city cen­ter, two re­search­ers of si­m­i­lar build and skin col­or, wear­ing dif­fer­ently col­ored lab coats, ap­proached a group of pi­geons. One ex­pe­ri­menter ig­nored the birds, al­low­ing them to feed, while the oth­er was hos­tile and chased them away. This was fol­lowed by a sec­ond ses­sion when nei­ther chased away the pi­geons.

Re­peat­ing the ex­pe­ri­ment sev­er­al times, the in­ves­ti­ga­tors found that the pi­geons rec­og­nized them in­di­vid­ually and con­tin­ued to avoid the re­searcher who had dis­turbed them, even when the chas­ing no long­er oc­curred. Swap­ping lab coats did­n’t con­fuse the pi­geons—their re­ac­tions were un­changed.

“In­ter­est­ingly, the pi­geons, with­out train­ing, spon­ta­ne­ously used the most rel­e­vant char­ac­ter­is­tics of the in­di­vid­uals… in­stead of the lab coats that cov­ered 90 per­cent of the body,” said Dal­i­la Bo­vet of the Uni­vers­ity of Par­is Ouest Nan­terre La Défense, one of the sci­en­tists di­rect­ing the stu­dy. “It is very likely that the pi­geons rec­og­nised the re­search­ers by their faces, since the in­di­vid­uals were both fe­male and of a si­m­i­lar age, build and skin colour.”

That the pi­geons seemed to know cloth­ing col­or was a bad way of tell­ing hu­mans apart sug­gests the feath­ered ur­banites have de­vel­oped abil­i­ties to dis­crim­i­nate be­tween hu­mans in par­tic­u­lar, the re­search­ers said. This skill, they added, may have come about over the long pe­ri­od of as­socia­t­ion with hu­mans, from early do­mes­tica­t­ion to many years of liv­ing in cit­ies. The sci­en­tists plan fu­ture stud­ies on wheth­er the pi­geon tal­ents are ge­net­ic­ally based or learn­ed.


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Free-roaming, untrained pigeons can recognize individual people and aren’t fooled by changes of clothes, a study has found. Researchers, who presented the findings at the Society for Experimental Biology Annual Conference in Glasgow on July 3, said the urban birds probably recognise people by their faces. Although lab-trained pigeons have shown remarkable feats of perception, this is the first research showing similar abilities in untrained feral pigeons, they added. In a park in Paris city center, two researchers of similar build and skin color, wearing differently colored lab coats, approached a group of pigeons. One experimenter ignored the pigeons, allowing them to feed, while the other was hostile and chased them away. This was followed by a second session when neither chased away the pigeons. Repeating the experiment several times, the investigators found that the pigeons recognized them individually and continued to avoid the researcher who had disturbed them, even when the chasing no longer occurred. Swapping lab coats didn’t confuse the pigeons—their reactions were unchanged. “Interestingly, the pigeons, without training, spontaneously used the most relevant characteristics of the individuals… instead of the lab coats that covered 90% of the body,” said Dalila Bovet of the University of Paris Ouest Nanterre La Défense, one of the scientists directing the study. “It is very likely that the pigeons recognised the researchers by their faces, since the individuals were both female and of a similar age, build and skin colour.” That the pigeons seemed to know clothing color was a bad way of telling humans apart suggests the feathered urbanites have developed abilities to discriminate between humans in particular, she added. This specialised skill may have come about over the long period of association with humans, from early domestication to many years of living in cities. The scientists plan future studies on whether the pigeon talents are genetically based or learned. clothes: scientists