Experience with Traffic Makes Pigeons Reckless

By Elizabeth Preston | January 8, 2017 12:43 pm

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You might expect city-dwelling birds to be savvy about traffic. Birds didn’t evolve around giant, motorized predators made of metal—but once they realize how quickly a cab or bus can bear down on them, they should take heed. A recent study, though, found that pigeons do just the opposite.

Travis DeVault is a wildlife biologist for the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Wildlife Research Center. Based in Ohio, he looks for ways to keep birds, bats, deer and other animals from being struck by cars, planes and helicopters. These kinds of collisions are bad news for the animals, obviously, but are also dangerous for humans.

For the new study, DeVault and his colleagues asked whether experience with cars teaches birds to avoid them. After seeing how fast these fuel-powered animals can travel, do birds give them a wider berth?

The researchers used pigeons. The 105 birds had grown up in a barn and never seen traffic; they traveled to and from the laboratory in covered cages so they’d remain clueless. The researchers divided the pigeons into three groups: One group would be trained by seeing a vehicle repeatedly zoom past at 60 kilometers per hour (37 mph). Another group would see the vehicle traveling 120 kph (75 mph). The third group—the control birds—would only hear the sound of the vehicle, and never see it.

The training happened over the course of several weeks. Birds waited in cages next to a closed road at a research station. Then the vehicle (a 2002 white Ford Ranger pickup, usually driven by DeVault) zoomed by, passing within 2 meters of the cages. The truck passed the birds at either 60 or 120 kph, depending on their group. The control birds were in a nearby cage with their view blocked, so they never saw the truck. Each group got buzzed a total of 32 times.

“We have conducted several experiments over the past few years that required us to drive trucks towards birds or other animals,” DeVault says, “so we have become pretty good at it.”

Once their training was complete, the pigeons returned to the lab for testing. Now that the birds had seen how fast cars can travel, the researchers wanted to know whether they’d act more cautious around traffic. Specifically, had training had made the pigeons any better at saving their own tails when a car was bearing down on them? Since the scientists didn’t want to actually flatten any animals, they used a video simulation.

One by one, the pigeons entered a video playback room. They saw the same truck from their training zooming toward them on a screen. But instead of passing close by the birds as in the training, the truck came straight at them. Then it seemed to pass (splat!) right overhead.

The researchers recorded how soon their pigeons started running or flying away when they saw the truck approaching. The training had made a difference, they saw—but it was the opposite of what they expected.

“We did expect the experienced birds to learn about the high speed of the vehicle and exhibit safer (earlier) responses than the control group,” DeVault says. Yet the trained birds waited longer before trying to escape. They seemed to think the truck was no big deal. Pigeons that had never seen traffic took off sooner, giving the truck more space. “We were somewhat surprised by our results,” DeVault says.

Earlier studies had suggested that either result was possible, depending on the animal and the circumstances. DeVault says an experiment with another bird species might have turned out differently. But his pigeons showed that some birds, at least, may get more comfortable with traffic as they see more of it. “We cannot assume that experience always results in less risk of collision,” he says.

Even the more cautious, inexperienced birds in his study didn’t fare well in their virtual collisions, though. Out of 90 pigeons that saw the truck video, only one bird took off soon enough to survive.


Image: YU CHIH-WEI (via Flickr)

DeVault, T., Seamans, T., Blackwell, B., Lima, S., Martinez, M., & Fernández-Juricic, E. (2017). Can experience reduce collisions between birds and vehicles? Journal of Zoology, 301 (1), 17-22 DOI: 10.1111/jzo.12385

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  • aka darrell

    Why do we think pigeons respect video simulations? Can they even see them? If so what do they see?

    • Elizabeth Preston

      Yes, the authors chose pigeons for this experiment because earlier research had shown that pigeons respond well to videos of approaching objects.

      • m242424

        pigeons are among the most stupid of birds I have ever seen. I rate them just above plants with about 30-40iq. Plants at about 5 and bacteria at about 15.

      • aka darrell

        Thanks.

  • http://www.smokershistory.com/ CarolAST

    In the wild, seeing a bird killed would probably instruct them in the dangers. And I’ve seen adult birds with young on the roadsides and in the roadways, with the older birds signaling them to fly away in time. Unfortunately, one time the young one was slow to obey, and the two birds headed in opposite directions so that I was forced to hit one. Very sad day.

  • Byron Spencer

    I think this is an interesting example of how animals integrate with their immediate environment, whether for good or for bad. It would be interesting to know if such a learned behavior can have lasting effects on the pigeons, and who knows, even be passed on to offspring.

  • OWilson

    For most of us our experience is with carrion crows on highways.

    I don’t actually recall seeing a pigeon on a busy highway.

    But crows who are feeding on road kill, are very nonchalant about leaving their prey when a car approaches, and you rarely see a dead crow on the highway.

    They have traffic figured out down to the last second.

    • m242424

      Crows have an iq of about 90. A lot higher than the majority of the inbred population…
      a lot higher than magpies (also corvids).

      I can also translate one crow squark, they are that smart.

      Seriously I kid you not, an iq of 90. They have entire conversations and work as groups and discuss strategies.

      Thankfully I have a very high iq and can realise this.

      • OWilson

        “Sounds” like you’ve miissed your “calling” :)

  • AmericanLady999

    I agree with OWilson, crows and ravens are the brightest of birds, approaching chimpanzees in intellect. Among my favorite species.

  • polistra24

    Using the same truck, driven by the same man, could be a problem. After hundreds of HARMLESS encounters with this one truck, the pigeons would feel confident that it wasn’t going to hurt them on the next encounter.

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Inkfish

Like the wily and many-armed cephalopod, Inkfish reaches into the far corners of science news and brings you back surprises (and the occasional sea creature). The ink is virtual but the research is real.

About Elizabeth Preston

Elizabeth Preston is a science writer whose articles have appeared in publications including Slate, Nautilus, and National Geographic. She's also the former editor of the children's science magazine Muse, where she still writes in the voice of a know-it-all bovine. She lives in Massachusetts. Read more and see her other writing here.

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