Pigeons can distinguish real words from fake non-words

From the study.

We know that pigeons are capable of becoming crafty drug smugglers or connoisseurs of fine art, but now we know they can kind of tell when we're making up words.

Like, for instance, "braggadocious," a most unusual utterance from Donald Trump used at the first presidential debate this week.

Researchers at New Zealand's University of Otago and at the Ruhr University in Germany recently found that pigeons can distinguish between real words and non-words. We don't know if they used the word "braggadocious" in the study.

The researchers report that the pigeons' performance on distinguishing real words from fakes was about as good as previous studies on baboons.

The birds were able to identify the legit words by visually processing the letter combinations, according to the research from Otago and Ruhr.

Their study, which is published in the international journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), is the first to identify a non-primate species as having "orthographic" abilities.

Orthographic processing means using the visual system to form, store, and recall words.

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 researchers added words one by one with the four pigeons in the study eventually building vocabularies ranging from 26 to 58 words and over 8000 non-words.

To check whether the pigeons were learning to distinguish words from non-words rather than merely memorising them, the researchers introduced words the birds had never seen before. The pigeons correctly identified the new words as words at a rate significantly above chance, researchers said.