Pigeons Teach Art

Scientists in Japan have shown that pigeons can outperform to students art in telling Picassos and Monets while in Britain pigeons have beaten university students in a race to work out where food is hidden. The Japanese researchers repeatedly showed to pigeons in individual cages 30 different paintings by Picasso and Monet. The pictures were flashed up in the bird’s cages on a screen, below which was a full container of seed.

The birds rapidly learned that if they pecked at a Picasso, they were rewarded with food while Monets brought no reward at all. When they began to enjoy near-perfect scores, the scientists thought this was because the birds had perfect memories. So, they showed them new, unseen Picassos and Monets and found the pigeons were able to identify the right artist again, showing they had a visual concept of style. They could tell the difference between Monet’s dappled light and vivid colours of Picasso’s surreal angular figures. But when works by artists were brought in, the birds became confused- just like some art students.

In the British study, town pigeons have beaten 200 university students in a contest to work out which of 60 colored bar charts showed where food was. Slides showing three red columns of varying heights on a white background were projected on to a wall. The pigeons, who had learned earlier they would get the right food if they pecked the right images, got it right all the time. Only two students in 200 worked out that the food were lying under the graphs with the smallest colored areas. The kindest explanation is that the students were searching for a more complicated answer. However, the pigeons no doubt felt that it was time their human rivals tried a little bit harder in future.

The pigeons’ amazing brainpower was revealed in a three-part TV documentary called Animal Minds. Producer Paul Reddish said: “When it comes to visual concepts, the brain of the art student and the pigeon may be very similar.” The programme also arrived at these rather startling conclusions: certain monkeys in the jungle suffer from the same levels of stress as office workers; bees teach each other not only where to find food but whether it is of a high quality as well; and most animals can show some emotion.

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