Are Pigeons Smart? Exploring the Intelligence of Pigeons

Pigeons are controversial animals when it comes to their level of intelligence. While some people breed them as pets or for sporting purposes and are willing to pay large sums of money for champion racing pigeons, others consider feral pigeons a nuisance and take measures to reduce their populations. Some people use the term “bird brain” to refer to individuals who behave in a foolish or immature manner.

However, recent scientific studies have revealed surprising insights into the cognitive abilities of pigeons. These studies have shown that these birds are far from unintelligent and may be quite the smartest birds. So, are pigeons smart? The answer may surprise you.

Are Pigeons Smart

Pigeons Are How Smart?

Studies have shown that pigeons possess cognitive abilities that exceed our previous assumptions. They can even count! In a 2011 study, researchers in New Zealand tested pigeons’ ability to understand numbers. The birds were able to indicate sets of visual figures in ascending order, a task that is difficult for most species other than some monkeys.

But that’s not all – pigeons can also be trained to discriminate between words they know and random combinations of letters. A 2016 study from New Zealand and Germany showed that pigeons could learn up to 58 words and tell them apart from 7,832 random four-letter combinations. This means that they have a representation of what a word is in their brains, which is a crucial step toward reading.

And if that’s not impressive enough, pigeons have also been trained to distinguish between different styles of art and even diagnose cancer by distinguishing between malign and benign tissue. These abilities show that pigeons are much smarter than we ever imagined!

Pigeon Intelligence:

Pigeons are surprisingly intelligent creatures. They can recognize all 26 letters of the English language and can be trained to perform complex actions and response sequences. They are even capable of differentiating between photographs and recognizing different individuals in a photo.

A study conducted at Keio University in Japan showed that pigeons can distinguish between paintings by Van Gogh and Chagall based on color and pattern cues. Pigeons also have remarkable memory abilities and can remember hundreds of images for years. It appears that pigeons are more intelligent than commonly believed.

1. The Mirror Test:

The mirror image test is a well-known measure of animal intelligence that assesses self-awareness. Invented by Gordon Gallup Jr in 1970, the test involves marking an animal with dye and placing it in front of a mirror to observe whether it recognizes the marking on its own body. If the animal reacts by turning to get a better view or touching the marking while still looking at the mirror, it is considered to have passed the test.

While chimpanzees, bonobos, orangutans, dolphins, elephants, and humans (after the age of one and a half) are known to have passed the test, pigeons are also among the select few who have demonstrated self-awareness. Pigeons have been observed to peck at the dye on their bodies in an attempt to remove it.

Other birds, such as magpies and crows, have also shown varying degrees of success on the mirror image test. While crows have excellent facial recognition skills and problem-solving abilities, they have not consistently passed the mirror test. Nonetheless, their intelligence has been demonstrated through other experiments, such as the Aesop’s Fable Test, where crows were able to use stones to raise the water level in a jug to access food.

2. Pigeons can multi-task:

Pigeons are remarkably intelligent birds that can observe different things and gain information about their surroundings without focusing solely on one thing at a time. This is similar to the concept of multi-tasking in humans, such as listening to music while cooking.

Pigeons have split brains, which means that they can shut down one side of their brain and rest while the other side remains alert for danger. With eyes on either side of their heads, they can monitor their surroundings effectively, even while resting. This ability to multi-task makes pigeons extremely adaptable and resourceful creatures.

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3. Pigeons can acquire knowledge:

Pigeons are intelligent creatures with the ability to learn beyond their instincts. They can be taught to perform various tasks and even follow a logical sequence, such as sitting on someone’s shoulder.

What’s more impressive is that they can adapt to changes in the training routine and still retain the knowledge they have acquired. Pigeons can acquire knowledge and apply it in practical situations.

4. Pigeons can make choices:

Studies have shown that pigeons possess greater intelligence than commonly believed. They are capable of learning how to respond to a specific stimulus and even learn not to respond to a different one.

Additionally, they can make responses to various other stimuli, which shows that they can recognize things and make choices based on their observations. In other words, pigeons can make choices and are not simply passive creatures.

5. Pigeons can recognize other pigeons:

Did you know that pigeons can recognize other pigeons? Just like humans, they can distinguish between different individuals and can even recognize behavior patterns. What’s more, they can tailor their responses based on the behavior of other pigeons.

This ability to recognize and respond to others is not unique to humans alone, as pigeons share this skill as well. It’s fascinating to think about the similarities between our species of birds and these intelligent birds.

6. Pigeons can discriminate:

Pigeons are more than just birds – they are intelligent creatures that can learn to make choices based on their environment. Through exposure to various objects, individuals can develop the ability to differentiate and select the correct response.

This skill is comparable to the way young children gain knowledge about their surroundings, discerning between what is safe to touch and what is not. It’s fascinating to see how animals like pigeons possess the ability to learn and adapt to their surroundings.

7. Pigeons understand words:

Believe it or not, pigeons are capable of understanding words! In fact, a study conducted in 2016 revealed that these birds can recognize all the letters of the alphabet. What’s even more impressive is that they can distinguish between a random string of letters and actual words, and can even be trained to learn spoken words. It’s amazing to think that such intelligent capabilities exist in animals we often overlook.

8. Pigeons can tell the time:

Pigeons have some impressive abilities, including the ability to judge both time and space. This helps them during flight, as they can calculate the distance to their destination and estimate the time it will take to get there.

In experiments, it has been shown that pigeons have the cognitive ability to process this information in a similar way to humans, but they lack the specific part of the brain that we use. Despite this, they are still able to accurately judge time and space, although it remains a mystery as to exactly how they do it.

9. Pigeons can remember things:

Pigeons are known for their impressive memory skills. They can retain visual images such as pictures or photographs for a long period, even covering hundreds of images over the years. In addition, they possess the ability to distinguish between two individuals in a photograph and classify them accordingly.

This remarkable memory ability could explain why pigeons are excellent navigators. Scientists have conducted research indicating that it is possible to memorize terrain during flight, note landmarks, and generate mental maps.

Researchers in Japan have even discovered that pigeons can distinguish between paintings by famous artists, using shapes and colors as visual clues. All of these findings highlight the impressive memory capabilities of pigeons.

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10. Disputed Tests:

The mirror test conducted on pigeons in 1981 by researchers studying animal intelligence has been the subject of debate in the scientific community. The pigeons were trained to find a response key behind them by looking into a mirror and rewarded with food when they found the correct key.

The researchers then placed dots on the pigeons’ feathers and bodies, rewarding them with food when they touched the correct dot. In an experiment, pigeons attempted to peck at a covered dot and continued to do so even when a mirror was put in place. This was seen as evidence of self-awareness by the researchers, but the scientific community disputed the findings.

They argued that the pigeons’ behavior was not spontaneous and that they had to be trained to react to the mirror, making the results invalid. While the mirror test has been replicated with the same results, many animal behaviorists still question its validity.

11. Pigeons can detect cancer in radiology images:

In 2015, researchers experimented to test the visual abilities of pigeons. The study aimed to determine whether pigeons could differentiate between benign and malignant human breast tumors in medical images. This task typically requires years of specialized training for medical professionals.

Pigeons were trained to differentiate between images of malignant and benign tissue samples using food rewards. Even when presented with new images, the birds were still able to accurately discriminate between malignant and benign tissue samples. Although pigeons will never be used in medical diagnostics, this experiment highlights the remarkable visual abilities of these birds.

12. Life-saving Pigeons:

Pigeons possess remarkable abilities that make them valuable in rescue missions and wartime efforts. They have superior eyesight compared to humans, being able to see in color as well as ultra-violet, a part of the spectrum that humans cannot detect.

Additionally, pigeons can learn complex actions and response sequences, making them trainable to respond to different situations. The skills were utilized in rescue operations during World War I and II and were also effective in rescuing many people who were stranded at sea. For more information on these heroic birds, please refer to Rescue Pigeons and War Pigeons.

13. Navigation:

Navigation is a remarkable skill possessed by certain animals, particularly those with the ability to learn routes back to their home from long distances. The homing behavior of animals is different from the migratory patterns of birds, which typically follow a predetermined path during certain seasons.

While homing is more flexible, it may involve similar mechanisms to migration. Humans have long been fascinated by the homing ability of animals and have utilized it for various purposes.

14. Pigeons are on par with primates when it comes to counting:

While many people would assume that primates are the most intelligent animals, a surprising study from the University of Otago in Dunedin, New Zealand found that pigeons have numerical abilities on par with primates.

In this study, researchers investigated whether pigeons could learn abstract numerical rules and found that the birds were not only able to discriminate between different numbers but could also solve complex mathematical problems like counting from one to nine.

This ability was previously only observed in primates, making pigeons one of the few species able to perform this task. Overall, pigeons are much more intelligent than we give them credit for and are capable of complex cognitive tasks.

Amazing Facts About the Pigeon

Pigeons are truly remarkable creatures with a range of fascinating abilities. They are one of the few species that have passed the ‘mirror test’, demonstrating self-recognition. They can identify individual letters within the human alphabet and distinguish between various photographs, including identifying different individuals within a single photograph.

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Their navigational skills are also impressive, utilizing the sun as a guide, an internal ‘magnetic compass’, and even landmarks as signposts. Research conducted at Oxford University even found that they travel along man-made roads and motorways, and can change direction at junctions.

Pigeons are highly social animals and are often seen in flocks of up to 30 birds. They mate for life and raise two chicks at a time, with both male and female pigeons sharing the responsibility of incubating eggs and feeding their young with a special secretion called ‘pigeon milk’.

Pigeons have excellent hearing abilities and can detect sounds at far lower frequencies than humans, enabling them to hear distant storms and volcanoes. Overall, pigeons are truly remarkable and fascinating creatures.

The pigeon is often misunderstood as a dirty and disease-ridden animal, but in reality, they are quite clean and not significant transmitters of disease. Pigeons have been living alongside humans for thousands of years, with the first recordings dating back to Mesopotamia in 3000 BC.

While pigeon droppings are considered a problem in modern society, they were once seen as extremely valuable as they were viewed as the best available fertilizer. Armed guards would even stand by dovecotes to prevent others from taking the droppings.

Pigeons are impressive fliers, capable of reaching altitudes of over 6000 feet and flying at an average speed of 77.6 mph. The fastest recorded speed is 92.5 mph.

Pigeons are considered spiritually significant by many members of various religions, including Muslims, Hindus, and Sikhs. In Sikh culture, it is customary for some individuals to feed pigeons as a tribute to Guru Gobind Singh, a revered leader who had a fondness for them. These are just a few of the interesting facts about the pigeon.


Are pigeons considered intelligent birds?

Yes, pigeons are surprisingly intelligent birds. They have demonstrated cognitive abilities on par with some mammals, showcasing problem-solving skills, memory retention, and the ability to learn from experience.

How do pigeons navigate over long distances?

Pigeons are known for their exceptional homing abilities. Research suggests that they use a combination of visual, magnetic, and olfactory cues to navigate, with a reliance on landmarks and Earth’s magnetic field to find their way back to their home lofts.

Can pigeons recognize human faces?

Studies have indicated that pigeons are capable of recognizing human faces. Their ability to distinguish between familiar and unfamiliar faces showcases a level of facial recognition previously thought to be exclusive to humans and some primates.

Do pigeons have a good memory?

Yes, pigeons have demonstrated a remarkable memory. They can remember routes, recognize individuals, and recall associations between stimuli. Their memory skills contribute to their ability to navigate and adapt to changing environments.

Are pigeons trainable?

Absolutely. Pigeons are highly trainable and have been used throughout history for tasks such as message delivery. They can be conditioned through positive reinforcement, responding well to training for various behaviors and tasks.

What is the significance of pigeon intelligence research?

Research on pigeon intelligence not only provides insights into the cognitive abilities of birds but also contributes to our understanding of animal intelligence as a whole. Pigeons serve as valuable models for studying learning, memory, and decision-making processes in the avian brain.


While some may underestimate the intelligence of pigeons, research has shown that they are quite intelligent creatures. From their ability to navigate long distances to their problem-solving skills, pigeons have proven to be much smarter than we give them credit for.

As we continue to study these birds, it’s clear that there is still much to learn about their cognitive abilities and how they interact with their environment. So the next time you see a pigeon, remember that they are much more than just a common city bird.

Kathy Gonzales

I'm an author of I have kept pigeons as pets for over 20 years and have written several articles. Here in this blog, I cover topics such as how to care for pigeons, what to feed them, and how to keep them healthy.