Saturday, April 2, 2022

Superior Reflections


Oil on Textured Linen Panel - 12 x 24 inches
Rock Pigeon (Columba livia), Lake Superior, Duluth harbor

Of all the birds that have visited my yard, two stand out as being extremely reactive to my presence, almost always noticing when I stand at the window closest to my bird feeders. It doesn’t make a difference if my approach is slow and methodical, or sloth-like; even when I try to peek around the corner showing only my head and one eyeball, my cover is blown just about every time. These two species are the American Crow and the Rock Pigeon. For this writing, I will be focusing on the Rock Pigeon. 

For the first five years at my home, Rock Pigeons had never found the spoils of my feeders, even though they were breeding only blocks away atop buildings. Unbeknownst to me, my feeders were a well kept secret. That all changed on July 27, 2019 when I saw the first Rock Pigeons in my yard. 

Rock Pigeons thrive in urban developments, and my home is close enough to urbanization for me to know that once the pigeons found my home, they were here to stay. With each passing year, commercial buildings encroach ever closer to my neighborhood, overtaking residential homes and stamping out treed plots of land. It’s a stubborn, unmitigated and curious trend given that Duluth’s population is no bigger than it was at the beginning of the 20th century. But, urban sprawl is another topic for a different day. 

First, let me just say that I had an internal dialog with myself when pigeons discovered my feeders three years ago. I asked myself: Was I going to love ‘em or loathe ‘em? For me the answer was easy. I wasn’t going to loathe them. I was going to understand them. But if you’re wondering what you’d do, may I pose a question? At what point in life do you throw your stink eye at the negative and lean on the positive? Negative news is front and center these days, we all know it, but behind all that negativity, science is moving forward at breakneck speeds. And as it turns out, there’s a lot of positive news out there. All you have to do is look for it. Case in point: the Rock Pigeon! 

Remember not too long ago when the Covid pandemic took off? It was only 2020, although it seems like eons ago. Well that year, a behavioral study about Rock Pigeons, Columba livia – the same species that visits my yard – was published in the March edition of Learning & Behavior, a journal devoted to the experimental and theoretical contributions and critical reviews concerning fundamental processes of learning and behavior in nonhuman and human animals. The news was positive. 

Research from the Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences from The University of Iowa and Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, University of California, Los Angeles (Victor M. Navarro, Edward A. Wasserman, and Piotr Slomka) determined that Rock Pigeons are extremely good at recognizing what they see. Well, of course they are. Aren’t all birds really great at seeing? Most are, but there are some exceptions such as New Zealand’s flightless kiwi. Rock Pigeons, however, have excellent vision. They can tell the difference between extremely complex objects, pictures, and photos. Their vision allows them to pick out a Monet from a Picasso, differentiate letters of the alphabet, recognize human expressions, and discriminate between benign and cancerous human breast images. I saved the best for last there, did you catch that? But researchers already knew this stuff, which means you might have just learned a little bit of old news. Don’t feel bad, I just learned it, too. 

What this most recent study found, and in character with sorting out breast cancer images, researchers discovered that Rock Pigeons can also differentiate between healthy and diseased heart muscles. So, in addition to reading mammograms, they’ve also been taught how to read stress test scans of the heart. Pigeons as heart disease specialists? Now that’s something that doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue. 

For a short explanation, a person is often given a stress test to determine if they have coronary heart disease. Pseudo-colorized images are then created to show how well blood flows, or doesn’t flow, throughout the body. A cardiologist reads those visual images to determine the presence of coronary blockages. Rock Pigeons were taught how to read those same images (myocardial perfusion single photon emission-computed tomography, or MPS) and were able to discern between a healthy heart and a diseased heart. And they were pretty darn good at it, too! 

Why is this important? To understand that, it’s helpful to know how reliable humans are at reading MPS scans. “The best achievable individual observer accuracy is about 86% and inter-observer agreement by Board-certified cardiology experts is about 87%” (quoted in Navarro, Wasserman & Slomka, 2020, p. 10). So, if you knew that your cardiologist was only 87% accurate in reading your MPS scan, there’s room for improvement, right? Hey, pigeons aren’t so bad after all. 

Now, just in case you’re imagining a pigeon standing next to your cardiologist in the doctor’s office interpreting your MPS test, I’m pretty sure that’s not going to happen. So, here’s the meat and potatoes of the experiment. Because Rock Pigeons have a remarkable trait whereby they can extract information from extremely complex visual stimuli (superb visual cognition), pigeons may simply be able to see things better, or differently, than humans. Since medical science would like to improve upon doctors being able to successfully read coronary test results, Rock Pigeons may be able to help. Using pigeons’ models for scoring tests may “identify visual features that can improve both human and computer performance” (quoted in Navarro, Wasserman & Slomka, 2020, p. 10). 

Pigeons have adapted extremely well to our human environment and provide us with enormous learning potential to help our own species. “This bird may have no particular knack for medical diagnosis, yet its eye and brain endow it with sufficient perceptual and cognitive equipment to provide researchers with practical methods for assessing human and machine performance” (quoted in Navarro, Wasserman & Slomka, 2020, p. 19). 

I hope attitudes improve about pigeons, especially given their lowly reputations. To think differently about them may take a whole host of reasons to change public opinion. Self-reflection, i.e. asking ourselves why we feel the way we do, can also be helpful. Positive news and time wouldn’t hurt either. Providing arguments for consideration to help reconstruct our way of thinking occurs when each one of us learns and grows through knowledge.

The Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development of the National Institutes of Health provided support for the Rock Pigeon research cited below.


Navarro, V.M., Wasserman, E.A. & Slomka, P. Taking pigeons to heart: Birds proficiently diagnose human cardiac disease. Learn Behav 48, 9–21 (2020).

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