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Everyone’s a critic

Posted on May 1, 1995

Modern city dwellers often dismiss the pigeon as the avian equivalent of the rat. But the birds have not always been so maligned. The ancient Greeks considered them sacred symbols of Aphrodite, goddess of love; the more practical Romans valued them as messengers. And while today many of them are indeed crumb-grubbing parasites, a team of Japanese psychologists has discovered that they are an unusually refined sort of parasite. Pigeons, the researchers report, can distinguish between the paintings of Claude Monet and Pablo Picasso — and more generally, between impressionism and cubism.

Shigeru Watanabe and his colleagues at Keio University in Tokyo trained two groups of pigeons. They placed each bird in the first group alone in a small box and showed it slides of paintings by Monet and Picasso, one slide at a time. If the pigeon pecked at a key in response to a Monet, Watanabe rewarded it with hemp seeds. Picasso peckers went hungry. The second group underwent the same training but were rewarded only for pecking at Picassos. After about 20 sessions, the birds in each group had learned to respond only to the painter for which they were rewarded, pecking correctly about 90 percent of the time.

Next Watanabe showed the pigeons Monets and Picassos they had never seen before, as well as impressionist paintings by Pierre-Auguste Renoir and cubist paintings by Georges Braque. The Monet-trained birds, he found, pecked readily at novel paintings by Monet and also responded correctly to paintings by Renoir. But they ignored Braques and Picassos. Conversely, the pigeons trained to appreciate Picasso disregarded the impressionists but pecked vigorously at new paintings by Picasso and Braque.

Are the pigeons distinguishing between paintings based on a single simple feature, such as whether it contains a particular color, or whether the objects in it have sharp edges? Apparently not. Even when Watanabe showed his pigeons Picassos and Monets in black and white, or out of focus so the paintings looked equally blurry and impressionistic, the birds could still tell the difference. Watanabe thinks they are making complex visual distinctions, using a number of cues all at once — much as we do. “Usually people think that only the species close to humans, such as chimpanzees and gorillas, have higher cognitive abilities,” Watanabe says. “But my research shows that species quite different from humans — like pigeons — have higher cognitive abilities similar to humans’, at least in some respects.”

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