Pigeons Never Forget

Tourists feeding pigeons in Piazza San Marco; photo by Jodi Cobb


“I never forget a face, but in your case I’ll be glad to make an exception.” – Groucho Marx

Groucho is not alone. It turns out that pigeons have an impressive ability to remember people’s faces, and aren’t fooled even when we change our clothes. Two researchers from the University of Paris Ouest Nanterre La Défense dressed in different color lab coats and went to feed pigeons in a local park. At first, one scientist allowed the pigeons to feed without incident while the other chased the birds away.  Later, neither chased the pigeons, but the birds recognized–and continued to avoid–the more rambunctious researcher even when she exchanged lab coats with her colleague.

“It is very likely that the pigeons recognised the researchers by their faces, since the individuals were both female and of a similar age, build and skin color,” says Dr. Dalila Bovet, co-author of research presented at the recent Society for Experimental Biology Annual Conference. “Interestingly, the pigeons, without training, spontaneously used the most relevant characteristics of the individuals (probably facial traits), instead of the lab coats that covered 90% of the body.”

Pigeons don’t forget–something for the actors in the rumored remake of Alfred Hitchcock’s “The Birds” to keep in mind.

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Since 2005, Michael has been a librarian at National Geographic.