Pigeons Know a Crazy Woman When They See One

I have a vivid memory of one of my more humiliating college experiences, and it involved a pigeon. I was walking home past the law library, not really paying attention as my brain had just be fried to a crisp by a six-hour biochem lab, when a dirty great pigeon flew at my face. I shrieked and ducked and generally made quite a scene. After the evil creature had flown away I took stock of my surroundings and realized I had a sizeable audience. These days I probably would’ve taken a bow, but instead I turned the color of a ripe plum, buried my face in my scarf, and fled.

What I didn’t consider until today was that the mangy bird might have actually singled me out for this dressing down. I have been known to hate on pigeons. Not very Zen of me, I know, but hey, I’m not the only one. After all, I didn’t come up with the phrase “rats with wings” I just use it liberally. And while I have never physically harmed a pigeon, I do enjoy a good sprint through an idling flock to frighten the things into the air. But I never thought they’d remember me, until today.

In recent work presented at the Society for Experimental Biology Annual Conference in Glasgow, a group of French scientists conducted a relatively straightforward experiment (that I intend to try and repeat). Their subjects were the flocks of unruly pigeons that gather in the center of Paris, and their question was “can these birds remember aggressive vs. passive tendencies in humans?”

Two members of the team donned different colored lab coats and headed out to feed the pigeons. One of them scattered food for the birds and then watched calmly as they feasted. The other scattered the food and then proceeded to run around yelling like a mad woman (in my forthcoming study, I will play this role). The researchers returned later in the day, and this time both remained calm after scattering food. The pigeons shunned the previously terrifying woman and only ate near the one they trusted.

Think pigeons can't detect crazy? You be the judge.

Since both women were of similar build and skin color, they hypothesized that maybe the pigeons were remembering the brightly colored lab coats. However when the coats were switched the pigeons still knew which scientist to avoid. The authors of the study, led by Dr. Dalila Bovet, think pigeons have evolved to recognize human features that never change. Having spent so long co-existing with us in cities, perhaps they have realized that while we can change our clothes we cannot change our faces.

Since I wasn’t at the talk I don’t know if this was addressed, but it occurred to me that while birds do generally rely on sight and sound they could be detecting a distinctive personal scent. A relatively recent study headed by Dr. Silke Steiger at the Max Planck Institute for Ornithology showed that while there is a lot of variation between species, birds do have a robust sense of smell that is adapted to their environment. For example, the Brown Kiwi, which uses its long beak to sniff out food in the undergrowth, has about six times the olfactory power of a seed-eating canary.

Whatever it is that pigeons remember about us, I have learned a valuable lesson from this work: If I don’t want a pigeon all up in my grill I shouldn’t aggravate it in the first place.

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Katie Pratt is a graduate student in Molecular Biology at Brown University. She has a passion for science communication, and in an attempt to bring hardcore biology and medicine to everyone, she blogs jargon-free at www.katiephd.com. Follow her escapades in the lab and online on Twitter.

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Be the first one to mind the gap by filling in the slang term for pigeon as a comment and get your name in the blog along with a sweet new BenchFly mug!

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UPDATE: Congratulations to Chemjobber – winner of this week’s Mind the Gap!

About the winner: Chemjobber is a working chemist in industry; he writes a blog on employment and unemployment in chemistry at chemjobber.blogspot.com. He likes the Indianapolis Colts, cornbread and C-H activation chemistry.

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About the prize: In addition to fame and glory beyond their wildest dreams, winners receive our new hot-off-the-presses large (15 oz) BenchFly mug to help quench their unending thirst for scientific knowledge… or coffee.


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Miss a previous edition of Mind the Gap? We’ve got you covered:

To Boldly Go Where No Worm Has Gone Before

Another One Bites the Dust: Rinderpest Eradicated

Scientists Just Wanna Have Fun (Like Uncaged Monkeys)

Mosquitoes Eating You Alive? Cheesy Feet Could be the Problem

Dirty Mouth? Clean it Up with Cancer Screening

Because in Space…It’s Always 5 O’Clock Somewhere

Curry: Now Good for Detecting Explosions, Not Just Causing Them

So You Thought Eating Poop Was Bad For You?

Are Fatty Acids the Cure for PMS?

Botanical Sleuthing Recovered Endangered Daisy

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5 comments so far. Join The Discussion

  1. @Chemjobber

    wrote on July 7, 2011 at 3:15 pm

    Uh, rats with wings?

  2. alan@benchfly

    wrote on July 7, 2011 at 3:21 pm

    Bingo! We have a winner!

  3. Charlie

    wrote on July 7, 2011 at 3:37 pm

    Hato-poppo is informal Japanese slang for pigeons; poppo was how the pigeon's cooing onomatopoetically sounds to the Japanese ear. I've been warned that adults saying hato-poppo is a little strange, as this comes from a children's song, like a English nursery rhyme.

  4. conor

    wrote on July 7, 2011 at 9:19 pm

    Rats with wings is what you call them. I hope I am first.

  5. Riff45

    wrote on October 19, 2011 at 1:34 am

    I used to live downtown. I had a pigeon try to attack me too.

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