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The Brilliance of Winged Rats

Sarah Boden
Iowa Public Radio
One of the 32 rock doves used in Wasserman's research at the University of Iowa's Comparative Cognition Laboratory.

Many Iowans find the common pigeon, or rock dove, a pest and call them "winged rats." However, this bird's brain is deceptively clever.

Ed Wasserman runs the Comparative Cognition Laboratory at the University of Iowa. Wasserman is world renowned for his work in animal intelligence, including proving that pigeons recognize individual human faces.

Wasserman believes memory and learning maintain certain universal laws across species. Currently the researcher is teaching pigeons a lexigram in hopes of shining light on reading and language disabilities in humans.

"Categorization is essential," says Wasserman. He theorizes that part of learning is discarding incorrect information, and that an inability to cull could lead to issues in speech, reading or spelling.

For example, a first grader misspells the word "yellow" with only one "L." After being told that the correct spelling requires a second "L," their brain removes the incorrect spelling from memory. However, if the child chronically fails to discard errors a learning disability might emerge.

"We often say that learning is a trial-and-error process, but what do we do with the mistakes?  Perhaps they are also an important part of the learning."

Pigeons are excellent subjects for cognition research due to the bird's abundance, sharp eyesight and remarkable patience.  Daily, a single pigeon might go through 1-2 hours of experimental trials in Wasserman's lab and not become bored.

The first psychology researcher to use pigeons was B.F. Skinner. Skinner successfully trained pigeons to guide missiles during World War II.

Though he received funding from the National Defense Research Committee, Skinner's pigeons were never deployed. The project was considered too risky and eccentric.

Credit Sarah Boden / Iowa Public Radio
Iowa Public Radio
Rock dove at the University of Iowa’s Comparative Cognition Laboratory.

Computers replaced the need for pigeon-guided missiles, but these birds continue to play an important role in science. "I want people to know that pigeons are noble, intelligent animals," Wasserman says.

"We often don’t think of them as particularly intelligent because we’re not adapting to their world. But if you fully understood the intricacies and challenges, you would be impressed...I am."

Charity Nebbe is the host of IPR's Talk of Iowa