Pigeons 'home in on friendly human feeders'

Pigeons in Prague (Image: BBC) Pigeons quickly learn the difference between friendly feeder and hostile foe

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Urban pigeons have the ability to learn the difference between people who will feed them and those who will chase them away, a French study has indicated.

Researchers suggested that this allowed birds to limit the time spent searching for food, and maximise the time eating.

The team said the study provided the first experimental evidence of feral pigeons using the ability to maximise benefits provided by urban areas.

The findings will be published in the journal Animal Cognition.

"Considered as a plague in many cities, pigeons in urban areas live close to human activities and exploit this proximity to find food - which is often delivered by people," the team of French scientists wrote.

Urban feral pigeons are direct descendants from wild rock doves/pigeons (Columbia livia), which are distinguished by two black bars on their wings. However feral pigeons vary in colour and patterns.

Friendly food

The birds are widespread. For example, Europe's population is estimated to be up to 28 million, with high densities in the centre of major towns and cities.

Pigeons in Barcelona, Spain (Image: BBC) Pigeons are not a species to miss out on a free lunch

It is considered that the birds' success in urban areas is a result of low levels of predation, and the year-round availability of food and breeding sites.

The researchers decided to conduct a series of experiments to explore the pigeons' ability to exploit the "human-based food resource", while avoiding people who were hostile and viewed the creatures as "flying rats".

They suggested that feral pigeons within urban environments probably used their "memory and categorisation abilities in their daily foraging activities".

"The ability to rapidly detect a human feeder could be an important factor in decreasing the total time spent foraging and increasing the rate of food ingestion," they said.

The team explained that two tests were carried out in an urban park, with two feeders - one neutral and one hostile. The hostile feeder would chase the birds away.

"In both experiments, the [feral] pigeons learned quickly to discriminate between the feeders," they observed.

"The pigeons avoided the hostile feeder even when the two feeders exchanged their coats, suggesting that [the birds] used stable individual characteristics to differentiate between the experimenter feeders.

"Thus, pigeons are able to learn quickly from their interactions from human feeders and use knowledge to maximise the profitability of the urban environment."

The researchers from scientific institutions across Paris said that the study provided the "first experimental evidence in pigeons for this level of human discrimination".

Members of the team will be presenting their findings at the Society for Experimental Biology's annual meeting in Glasgow, Scotland, on 3, July 2011.

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