Contributed by Marielle Grenade-Willis
Many people characterize pigeons as the bane of the urban landscape…cue the caracature of these birds squating around passersby in Central Park looking for handouts of breadcrumbs. However, pigeons have an impressive history of capabilities ranging from their lifesaving role in WWII as message carriers to their neural abilities that can sense the Earth’s magnetic field. Most recently, pigeons have been found to understand abstract concepts of space and time. A study published by the University of Iowa had pigeons view a horizontal line on a computer screen in order to judge its length or the duration of time that it was visible. What they discovered is that pigeons who viewed a longer line understood the line to appear for a longer period of time, and those lines that appeared for a longer period of time were judged to be longer in length. “What that means, says Edward Wasserman, Stuit Professor of Experimental Psychology in the Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences at the UI, is pigeons use a common area of the brain to judge space and time, suggesting that these abstract concepts are not processed separately.” Interestingly, the area of the brain responsible for this in humans and other primates, the parietal cortex, is not present in pigeons so a different internal system must be able to discriminate these qualities although no hypothesis is actually given in the study. Either way, studies such as this are further evidence of the amazing qualities of our fellow nonhuman animals, especially those we come in constant contact with and take for granted.