Study: Pigeons Can Recognize Familiar Human Faces

Is that pigeon a friend of yours?

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Sally Anscombe/ Getty Images

Sure, city folk might think of them as little more than rats with wings. But new research shows that pigeons are more than just breadcrumb fanatics or calculators.

A study in this month’s Avian Biology Research provides evidence “that birds living in urban habitats are able to distinguish between specific humans, depending on their previous experience with them.”

(READ: Pigeons Remember that You Hate Them, Will Probably Plot Revenge Later)

This means that birds not usually thought of having higher cognitive processes — like pigeons — can recognize a person they have encountered before, based strictly on facial characteristics.

This also means that they may remember you as that person who shooed them away in the park and react to ensure survival.

Lead researcher Dr. Anna Wilkinson told Science Daily that “Such advanced cognitive processes have rarely been observed in pigeons and suggest that they not only recognize individual humans but also know who they know, something which could be very important for survival. To know individuals and act appropriately to them is enormously advantageous.”

The study was conducted by a team of animal behavior experts from the University of Lincoln and the University of Vienna that trained a group of pigeons to recognize the difference between photographs of familiar and unfamiliar objects. These pigeons, along with a control group, were shown photographs of pairs of human faces, one familiar and one that the pigeons had not previously seen.

The experimental group birds were able to recognize and classify the familiar people based only on faces, while the control group did not.

Though this is (hopefully) not a precursor to a real-life Birds-like incident, it is some food for thought the next time a pigeon gets too close for comfort.

MORE: China’s Most Secret Weapon: The Messenger Pigeon