The Columban Simulations: How Smart Are Pigeons?

pigeons-smallI found two wonderful youtube clips recently. I highly recommend taking the time to watch them! They are the first and second halves of a short 1980s film about the Columban Simulations. The Columban Simulations were a series of research studies where pigeons were taught to perform complicated behaviors that we usually think of as uniquely human. The birds in these experiments give the term “bird brained” a whole new meaning!

The film (which I’ve linked to at the bottom of this post) features video footage from the experiments as well as B.F. Skinner and Robert Epstein, the two scientists in charge of the project, discussing their findings. (I’ve written about Epstein and his work on creativity before, after meeting him the Art and Science of Animal Training conference. Click Here to read my notes from his talk.)

The film covers the following studies by B.F. Skinner and Robert Epstein:

The Jack and Jill Experiment, where two pigeons were taught to “talk” to each other by pressing buttons. A colored light would appear behind a curtain that only pigeon 1 could see. Pigeon 1 would peck a button to tell pigeon 2 the color of the light. The second bird would then select the correct color from a set.

When the Jack and Jill Experiment was repeated with just a single bird, the bird would use the middle buttons to “take notes” to remind himself which light was correct.

The second film clip explains an experiment where pigeons imitated another pigeon, as well as the box and banana problem. The box and banana problem is a famous pyschological experiment that involved monkeys pushing a box across a room and then standing on it to reach bananas. B.F. Skinner and Robert Epstein showed that if a pigeon had the correct component skills, the bird could easily solve this dilemma.

The final experiment shown in the video involves the mirror test, which is used with young children to demonstrate that after a certain age, children have a “self concept.” Epstein and Skinner again showed that pigeons can easily solve complex tests if they have the appropriate component skills.

We often attribute behavior to intelligence, problem solving skills, or reasoning. However, much behavior is a direct result of our interactions with our environment. With the right prerequisite skills or teaching procedure, many simple behaviors can combine or expand, resulting in some highly complex behaviors.

We often use mental processes to explain highly complex behaviors, such as language, imitation, awareness of self, and problem solving. However, this still doesn’t explain what causes the behavior. As Epstein and Skinner demonstrate, by using what we know about reinforcement, shaping and basic behavioral processes, an animal as lowly as a pigeon can perform many of these highly complex skills.

So, without further ado, here are the two video clips from the 1982 film Cognition, Creativity and Behavior: The Columban Simulations. They are each about 14 minutes, if you don’t have time to watch both, I’d recommend watching the second one first. Or, bookmark them on youtube and come back to them later. However, they are definitely well worth watching!

Youtube: Drs. Robert Epstein & BF Skinner with Pigeons-Part 1

Youtube: Drs. Robert Epstein & BF Skinner with Pigeons-Part 2

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