Homing where the heart is

“Take a left Freddy!”

“No Sandra, it’s straight on, trust me!”

You’d be forgiven if you assumed this is an old couple arguing about which route to take on the M6 to Manchester. Well, maybe they are an older couple…but what if I told you that Freddy and Sandra are not humans…but homing pigeons!

A recent study in the esteemed journal Nature shows that our furry friends may be a lot smarter than we’ve given them credit.

Collective intelligence refers to the phenomenon whereby groups of individuals make better decisions collectively than any solitary individual. This has been observed in a wide variety of organisms, including humans, but has usually been restricted to one-off observations. Cumulative cultural evolution (CCE) is whereby new generations can learn and add to the experiences of their predecessors.

The authors wanted to test whether collective intelligence could be passed on from one generation to the next through learning, which would provide evidence for CCE in a non-human species. They state in their paper that, “CCE can allow groups to develop increasingly complex knowledge and skills over time, beyond the capacities of a single individual.”

Basically, one pigeon was let loose and then found its way home. After 12 releases the pigeon improved greatly in its performance. When a ‘naive pigeon’  partner was added to the ‘experienced pigeon’ (that is, to ones that had flown the route previously) they “observed an initial drop in the efficiency of the pair, but in each case this recovered as flight number increased within the given generation. Indeed, each generation typically outperformed, eventually, the previous generation’s peak efficiency.”

Therefore, the authors demonstrated that when a naive pigeon pairs up with an experienced pigeon, the collective performance initially decreases (ie. they’re probably squabbling about the best way to go!) and then by 12 flights, the overall performance supersedes that of the peak performance of the originally experienced pigeon. Going into future generations, the effect is cumulative, or iterative. The authors propose an explanation:

“cumulative improvement was exhibited in our navigational problem-solving scenario because (a) information pooling allows birds introduced in each new generation to contribute novel ‘innovations’ that can outperform previous solution, (b) pigeons are capable of learning solutions produced through collective intelligence (‘collective learning’) and use these as inputs in subsequent collective decisions and (c) pigeons are capable of evaluating the payoffs of their performance, such that when errors do get added by naive individuals, these innovations can be ‘pruned’ on the basis that they lead to worse performance (while those that lead to better routes are kept). Notably, the filtering process highlighted in (c) is also recognized as an important mechanism in CCE.”

Given all the information, it’s tough not to at least tentatively suggest the notion that in some way or another, the following scenario is playing out in our airways:

Experienced driver ‘Roger’ – why did you take a left Betty, I told you to take a right!

Newbie driver ‘Betty’ – trust me Roger, I’ve got a feeling about this one

Roger – OK we’ll go with it for now, but if you’re wrong then I’m driving next time

Betty – See, I told you…(cue Ryanair jingle) we’re on time and even 10 minutes early!

Most interesting for me is how the initial performance decreases when a naive pigeon is paired up with an experienced pigeon, however by the end of 12 flights it has improved significantly. To me this illustrates a real personal dynamic, which we observe in any trust-building relationship in human life as well. Why are animals necessarily any different in principle?

“Birds born in a cage think flying is an illness.” — Alejandro Jodorowsky

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