Pigeons Solve Some Problems in Ways Similar to Artificial Intelligence?

Pigeons, though often belittled by many, can actually solve problems in a manner like that of artificial intelligence! Thanks to a new study supported by the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health, there’s a whole new meaning to the term “bird brains.”

We celebrate how smart we are that we designed artificial intelligence, at the same time we disparage pigeons as dim-witted animals,” noted lead author and professor of psychology Brandon Turner from Ohio State University. “But the learning principles that guide the behaviors of these AI machines are pretty similar to what pigeons use.”


Scientists had formerly determined that pigeons have the ability to tackle certain complicated tasks in ways that a human’s way of thinking would not be as effective. It has been speculated that pigeons use “brute force” to solve problems just like AI. Turner and a colleague from the University of Iowa created an experiment that seems to have proven that theory.

According to Turner, the mechanisms that guide pigeon learning “are remarkably similar to the same principles that guide modern machine learning and AI techniques.” He explained that nature appeared to have created an “incredibly efficient learner that has no ability to generalize or extrapolate like humans would.”

Turner and Edward Wasserman, also a professor of psychology, created four different tasks for a group of pigeons. The birds had to peck a button to choose which category a group of lines, concentric rings, and sectioned rings belonged to. The pigeons received a food pellet only if they got the right answer.

Over time, the pigeons got better at making their choices and improved their scores from 55 percent to 95 percent. Their responses also improved in the most difficult task from 55 percent to 68 percent.


It is believed the birds used associative learning, or the coupling of two phenomena. This is a somewhat simple concept. It is often considered “far too primitive and rigid to explain complex visual categorization like what we saw the pigeons do,” Turner explained.

However, when the researchers used AI to complete the same tasks, the AI model also used associative learning and error correction. Just like the pigeons appeared to use! The AI model increasingly made correct answers just like the birds.

In contrast, humans would have tried to conceive of a rule to make the job easier. However, there are no rules that would have made these types of tasks easier. Pigeons do not attempt to make up rules, Turner pointed out. Instead, they use a brute force method of trial and error as well as associative learning to get the job done. Outperforming humans and acting in a way that is like AI.


Pigeons are remarkable animals. They can be trained to return to specific locations, and are strong enough to carry small notes. They were used by soldiers during the World Wars to send messages and spy on enemy troops. Read more about these hero birds here.

And just in case you think the doves the bride and groom release at a wedding are pigeons, get the facts here. Finally, check out some weird nests built by our feathered friends.