Don’t underestimate the lowly pigeon. Though their brains are no bigger than the tip of a finger, they have excellent visual recall and can be taught to accurately read expressions on human faces, identify misshapen pharmaceutical capsules, and distinguish letters of the alphabet, says researcher Edward Wasserman of the University of Iowa. In 2015, Wasserman’s research team determined that pigeons can also be trained to correctly identify cancer cells in images of breast tissue with 85 percent accuracy, which is actually comparable to the success rate among people.
And they work for bird seed:
- “Their visual memory capacity is impressive,” Wasserman said, citing the birds’ ability to recall more than 1,800 images. This bird brainpower could help improve new diagnostic technologies.
- The birds were taught to distinguish between microscope images of cancerous and non-cancerous tissue, and were rewarded with food when they selected the correct answer. Their training took only two weeks.
- The researchers also tested a "flock-sourcing" approach. When the scientists pooled individual decisions from a group of four birds, they were 99 percent accurate in their diagnoses.