Orthographic Processing Discovered in Pigeons

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Orthographic Processing Discovered in Pigeons

Postby Kovu » Sun Sep 25, 2016 4:13 pm

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According to a new study by University of Otago researchers, pigeons (Columbidae) can learn to distinguish real words from non-words by visually processing their letter combinations.

The researchers, led by Dr. Damian Scarf of the University of Otago’s Department of Psychology, trained rock pigeons (Columba livia, not to be confused with Streptopelia decaocto from the photo) to peck four-letter English words as they came up on a screen, or to instead peck a symbol when a four-letter non-word, such as "URSP" was displayed.

The researchers found that the pigeons' performance was on a par with that previously reported in baboons for this type of complex task.

Dr. Damian Scarf and his colleagues added words one by one with the four pigeons in the study eventually building vocabularies ranging from 26 to 58 words and over 8'000 non-words. To check whether the pigeons were learning to distinguish words from non-words rather than merely memorizing them, they introduced words the birds had never seen before.

The pigeons correctly identified the new words as words at a rate significantly above chance.

Co-author Prof. Onur Güntürkün, from the Department of Biopsychology at the Ruhr-University Bochum, Germany, said "that pigeons — separated by 300 million years of evolution from humans and having vastly different brain architectures — show such a skill as orthographic processing is astonishing."

"We may have to seriously re-think the use of the term ‘bird brain’ as a put down," added study senior author Prof. Michael Colombo, from the University of Otago’s Department of Psychology.


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Re: Orthographic Processing Discovered in Pigeons

Postby V-Raptor » Sun Sep 25, 2016 4:24 pm

This is really neat. Also potentially horrifying in the future, but, you know, still neat. I knew birds could be pretty smart but it's especially interesting to see how city-dwelling species adapt to their environment. Surely there's some sort of selective pressure (light as it may be) to being able to recognize certain structures e.g. what buildings you can find food around ("café"), or am I stretching this a bit?
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Re: Orthographic Processing Discovered in Pigeons

Postby Kovu » Sun Sep 25, 2016 10:33 pm

I think it has more to do with the fact that our language isn't as unique as previously believed.

Other studies have shown that certain birds actually even rearrange sounds to create new meanings, and a recent one on tits uncovered that they speak in phrases:

https://www.terrasco.net/index.php?m=read&y=2015&msg=91
https://www.terrasco.net/index.php?m=read&y=2016&msg=15
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Re: Orthographic Processing Discovered in Pigeons

Postby V-Raptor » Tue Sep 27, 2016 12:27 pm

Hmm, very interesting, I was not aware of that. I wonder if that would correlate with visual pattern recognition.
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Re: Orthographic Processing Discovered in Pigeons

Postby Kovu » Tue Sep 27, 2016 4:55 pm

Animals, and especially birds, often communicate by visual inputs. Of course that doesn't mean they'd actually have an understanding for our written language, but visual inputs are just as important for their own communication. That combined with their capability to recognize and interpret patterns (which was previously observed in their language) makes it at least plausible...
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Re: Orthographic Processing Discovered in Pigeons

Postby V-Raptor » Tue Sep 27, 2016 8:46 pm

Hm, I guess that does suggest they have the tools, to some extent.

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