Archive for the 'Doves & Chickens' Category

Oct 03 2016

Pigeons Can Read 4-Letter Words

Pigeons (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Pigeons (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

A new study of rock pigeons indicates they can read four-letter words … sort of(*).

Researchers at the University of Otago in New Zealand and Ruhr University in Germany quizzed four pigeons on their orthographic abilities.

According to Science Daily, “In the experiment, pigeons were trained to peck four-letter English words as they came up on a screen, or to instead peck a symbol when a four-letter non-word, such as ‘URSP’ was displayed. … The pigeons correctly identified the new words as words at a rate significantly above chance.”

Eventually the four birds in the experiment recognized 26 to 58 real words and correctly labelled over 8,000 as non-words.  They’re the first non-primate species found to have this ability.

So yes, pigeons know when they’re looking at a real 4-letter word but like naïve children they don’t know what it means.

Learn more about the study here in Science Daily.


(photo from Wikimedia Commons. Click on the image to see the original)

(*) The study shows that pigeons can figure out letter-combinations. Pigeons have no reading comprehension so, literally speaking, they cannot read.

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Sep 27 2016

He Eats Needles

Here’s a bird you’ll never see in Pennsylvania.

The spruce grouse (Falcipennis canadensis) is a resident of the northern forest in Canada, Maine, Minnesota and the northern Rockies.  Though he resembles our state bird, the ruffed grouse, his diet keeps him north of us.

In winter our ruffed grouse (Bonasa umbellus) eats buds, twigs, catkins, ferns and fruit — easy food to find in Pennsylvania.

Not so the spruce grouse.  His winter diet is conifer needles.  They’re so hard to digest and he has to eat so many of them to stay alive that his digestive system changes in the fall.  According to Cornell’s All About Birds, his “gizzard grows by about 75 percent, and other sections of the digestive tract increase in length by about 40 percent.”  Before the snow falls he stocks up on grit so his gizzard can grind up the needles.

In September 2012 Sparky Stensaas found this spruce grouse swallowing road grit and feasting on a tamarack in northern Minnesota.  Tamaracks loose their needles in October so the grouse had to eat them right away.

This bird eats spruce needles, too.  That’s why he’s a spruce grouse.


Click here to see the video full screen and read Sparky’s description of what this grouse was up to.

(video by Sparky Stensaas)

* Tamaracks are larches, deciduous conifers whose needles turn yellow and drop in the fall.

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May 25 2016

Pigeons and Bicycles Test The Air

Screenshot from Pigeon Air Patrol website:

Screenshot from Pigeon Air Patrol website:

The air’s going to be bad in Pittsburgh today — Unhealthy for Sensitive Groups orange flag — so don’t take baby out for a stroll this afternoon. How can we know exactly where it’s safe to breathe?  Birds and bicycles test the air.


Birds: London, England, March 2016:

Pigeons have been used for breeding, racing and message-carrying.  This spring in London the Pigeon Air Patrol tested the air — quite literally.

In March three members of a flock of racing pigeons were outfitted with air quality monitors and GPS.  Then the flock was released from various points in the city to record — and tweet — air quality data on their way.  People could see what they were breathing in real time.

This is of interest in London because they have a history of bad air with darkness at noon and killer smog (1952).  But the air’s OK now, right?  Well, that’s not what the pigeons found.

Typical air monitors sample fixed locations but the pigeons flew through hotspots of bad air.  Who knew that a particular street corner was a bad place to breathe?  The pigeons did.

Check the Plume Labs website to see what’s happening in the air in London and around the world right now.  (Scroll down to see the map.) If you have breathing problems there are quite a few places you should never visit.


Bicycles: Pittsburgh, PA, ongoing:

Two thirds of the year Pittsburgh’s air quality is in the “moderately polluted” range which doesn’t sound like much but constitutes a health risk in the long term.  Today our air will be worse –> Unhealthy for Sensitive Groups.

Air Now forecast for Pittsburgh, PA, 25 May 2016 (screenshot from

Air Now forecast for Pittsburgh, PA, 25 May 2016 (screenshot from

The regional map doesn’t tell the whole story.  Some places have better air than others so the Group Against Smog and Pollution enlisted bicycles to help.  In this ongoing project, volunteers carry monitors on their bicycles and collect air quality data as they ride.  GASP then maps the data on a street by street basis.

See Pittsburgh’s air quality here on GASP’s street-by-street map, or here at Plume Labs.

When it comes to breathing, we need all the help we can get.


p.s. Do you ride a bike in Pittsburgh? Do you want to help map air quality? Click here.

(screenshots from Pigeon Air Patrol website and from Air Now)

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Apr 12 2016

Pigeons Have A Favorite Foot

Rock pigeon hopping down a step (photo by Pimthida via Flickr, Creative Commons license)

Rock pigeon hopping down a step (photo by Pimthida via Flickr, Creative Commons license)


Most of us have a dominant hand that’s our favorite choice for everything that requires skill.  About 90% of us are right-handed.

Did you know that pigeons (Columba livia) have a favorite foot?  And that most of them are right-footed?

This was discovered by Harvey I. Fisher at Southern Illinois University in the mid 1950’s while he was looking for something else.  In 1954-1955 he was studying the landing force that pigeons exert on a perch, so he recorded the actions of 11 pigeons landing a total of 4,000 times.

That’s when he noticed that most of them extended one foot and landed on it first, and that they had a favorite foot for doing this.  He ran more experiments, tallying 7,259 landings.

Seven of the 11 pigeons were right-footed, three were left-footed and one didn’t have a favorite.  That’s about 63% right-footedness.  Read more here in his 1957 article: Footedness in Domestic Pigeons.

I found out this interesting factlet at the Urban Wildlife Guide’s Right-footed Pigeons, and was so intrigued that I bought the book: Field Guide to Urban Wildlife by Julie Feinstein. (I highly recommend it by the way.)

So what do you think?  Is this pigeon left-footed?  Or is he just tucking his right foot so it doesn’t hit the step?


(photo by Pimthida via Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 license. Click on the image to see the original)

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Mar 08 2016

Pigeon Applause

Two rock pigeons in flight (photo from Shutterstock)

(photo from Shutterstock)

Have you heard it?  It’s the sound of pigeon applause.

The wings of rock pigeons (Columba livia) often make whistling sounds when they fly, but during the breeding season the males’ wings make a clapping sound, too.

Like many birds, pigeons have courtship rituals before and after mating. Here’s a summary of what they do from Cornell’s Birds of North America:

  • Before they mate:
    • The male struts around the female: standing tall, inflating his neck, cooing, bowing and fanning his tail.
    • They preen each other on the head and neck.
    • The female asks the male to feed her, like a nestling, by regurgitation. This may be called “billing”
  • They mate: The female crouches. The male mounts her and balances with open wings.
  • Afterward the male may do a post-copulatory flight display:
    • He takes off loudly clapping his wings on the upstroke (behind him) for 3-5 wingbeats.
    • And then he glides with his wings up in a “V”

Play the audio clip below to hear that distinctive clap.


Listen for it this spring.


(photo from Shutterstock. Click on the image to see the original)

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Jan 28 2016

Too Many Pigeons?

Rock pigeon flock (photo by Chuck Tague)

Flock of rock pigeons (photo by Chuck Tague)

On Throw Back Thursday:

It can happen at any time of year but more often in the warmer months.  People suddenly get fed up with the number of pigeons in their area and they want them gone … NOW!

Ideas for instant pigeon removal are usually bad and can be really bad for peregrine falcons who hang out near the pigeons.  Last week I got an email from Patricia M. who needed good ideas for pigeon removal because someone in her town wanted to shoot them.

It really is possible to reduce the pigeon population at a specific location.  I’ve seen it happen at the Cathedral of Learning in 2007 and at Pittsburgh’s Mellon Square in 2014. The hardest part of pigeon control is changing human — not pigeon — behavior.

Read how to do it in this blog post from July 2008: Too Much of a Good Thing


(photo by Chuck Tague)

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Nov 26 2015

Wild Turkeys Are Thankful

Published by under Doves & Chickens

Wild turkey, displaying (from the PA Game Commission photo gallery)

Wild turkey, displaying (from the PA Game Commission photo gallery)

Today is Throw Back Thursday and Thanksgiving, all in one.

Here’s an article from 2008 that explains why wild turkeys are thankful their species is a popular food.   It doesn’t seem to make sense … but it does!  Click here to read why.


(photo of a male Wild Turkey in full display, courtesy of the PA Game Commission’s Photo Gallery in 2008)

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Sep 10 2015

TBT: Faster Than The Internet

Published by under Doves & Chickens

Rock pigeons (photo by Chuck Tague)

Rock pigeons (photo by Chuck Tague)

Throw Back Thursday (TBT):

What do pigeons have to do with the Internet?

Here’s a look back to 2009 when an Internet connection speed was challenged by a bird –>  Faster Than The Internet.


(photo by Chuck Tague)

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Sep 08 2015

Working Birds: Start Of The Race

Published by under Doves & Chickens

When we humans have time off, some birds go to work.  In this video from Odolanów, Poland, hundreds of racing pigeons start on a race.

Racing pigeons are rock pigeons (Columba livia) specially bred and specially fed to be fast and athletic.  Their owners know the birds must be fit and healthy to win.  They take really good care of their birds.

On race day the pigeons are trucked to a central starting point and released to fly home.  The trucks are specially designed to carry the birds and release them simultaneously.  Race officials note the start time for each group and stagger the releases so the birds have enough space to circle up, get their bearings, and leave.  As they circle, each pigeon figures out where home is — and then flies as fast as he can to get there.

How do they determine which bird wins?  Race officials note the time the bird was released.  The bird wears a band that’s electronically read when he arrives at the loft and notes his finish time. The racing organization calculates the distance from the release point to the loft.  The fastest bird in miles/kilometers per hour is the winner. Ta dah!

For more information on pigeon racing, click here.


(video from YouTube)

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Aug 13 2015

TBT: Talking Turkey

Wild Turkey baby (photo by Tim Vechter)

Throw Back Thursday (TBT):

Speaking of wild turkeys, as I did on Tuesday, here’s more about on their family life and a cute baby picture in this post from August 2008 –>  Talking Turkey.


(photo by Tim Vechter)

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