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Self Recognition and Impulse Control in Birds


Research this month (June, 2008) at Japan’s Keio University has proven what pet keepers have long known – that birds possess much more intelligence than they are given credit for.

The work showed that pigeons have a well developed sense of “self”, and can distinguish their own images from those of another pigeon after a delay of up to 7 seconds. This places them ahead of most human 3 year olds, who fail at self-recognition tests after a 2 second delay. Amazingly, the pigeons were also taught to distinguish the paintings of Van Gogh from those of Chagall – a task at which, I am embarrassed to say, I would likely fail!

Prior to these findings, only mammals with highly-developed brains, such as chimpanzees, elephants, dolphins and (possibly) dogs, were known to be capable of recognizing their own images.

In another interesting project, Rohr University Bochum (Germany) biologists were able to determine that pigeons moderated their choice of a large versus a small reward based upon how long it took for each reward to be delivered. The research revealed that pigeon impulse-control is regulated by a single forebrain neuron, and could have important implications for the treatment of addictive and attention-deficit related disorders in humans.

Parrots seem, at least on the surface, to exceed pigeons in their learning abilities – I imagine that we will eventually learn that they have other very advanced capabilities as well.


An interesting article concerning the similarities between how birds and people perceive the world around them is posted at:

European Starlings, Sturnus vulgaris, Can Determine When People are Watching – and React Accordingly

European Starling
Researchers at the University of Bristol determined this month (May, 2008) that starlings and other birds moved away from feeders if watched by people, but continued feeding if the observers remained just as close to the feeders, but turned their eyes away.

Interesting….but I think bird keepers have known this to be true for quite some time. Most of us learned early on that parrots focus on our eyes when watching us, and that the best way to sneak up on a bird that is reluctant to return to its cage is to observe it by quick, side-wise glances. This is a good point to keep in mind when watching newly acquired finches and other shy pets.

In fact, a key to being able to get a good look at the birds I worked with in large zoo exhibits was to avoid a direct stare. Birds feeding calmly not far from me would immediately fly off if I shifted my glance, even if the rest of my body remained immobile. I had first learned this lesson in the wonderful book Hand Taming Wild Birds at the Feeder, by Alfred G. Martin (Bond Wheelwright Co., 1963), and was subsequently able to induce a variety of birds to feed from my hand.

I have a bit of eviBarn Owldence that birds “know” the meaning of other human facial features as well. I once helped to raise a barn owl, Tyto alba, that had been found on a Bronx street (yes, a surprising number of birds do live there!). The bird imprinted on people (came to view us as its “parents”), which suited it well for us in educational programs. As hand-raised birds will do, this male owl sought a human “mate” when it matured. In typical barn owl fashion, it would bring any nearby keeper a mouse – perching on our shoulders and trying to stuff its lovely nuptial gift into our mouths! Never once did the owl try an ear or eye – it seemed to be able to make, in its brain, the quite large transition from bird beak to human mouth.


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