Thursday, June 6, 2013

Discriminating Pigeons

We know pigeons can categorize classical music, apparently in similar ways that we do.  We also know they can distinguish a Monet painting from a Picasso.  These and many other pigeon feats are in my book.  But who would possibly have thought that pigeons could learn to categorize children's "good" and "bad" art? 

One of the neat things about being on a book tour is learning from members of my audiences--stories from their lives or their reading.  In Minnesota, one audience member told me about this recent study in Animal Cognition by the same researcher (Shigeru Watanabe) who did the Monet-Picasso study.  The "good" and "bad" art was judged by people, of course, 10 adults and an art teacher--but the pigeons readily learned similar standards.  Then they generalized to novel examples of children's art.

What is it that makes for "bad" art?  It was messier and harder to identify objects, for one.  But defining the basis used for categorizing wasn't easy even for the art teacher.

Using clever tests, Watanabe showed that the birds were using color and pattern as a basis for their choices.  We do too, of course.  Does that mean that the birds would enjoy viewing the "good" art?  It's not an outlandish question.  We know that a species of sparrow prefers melodic music over dissonant sounds, after all (also courtesy of Dr. Watanabe).  And pigeons have great vision, unlike our closer companions, dogs.

Kind of makes us look at these common street birds a bit differently!

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