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Pigeon Lab


With pigeons we are striving to understand the perceptual and associative mechanisms of bird cognition, mainly in the visual domain. As birds are highly mobile animals, vision is of particular importance to them and the study of pigeons is thus relevant to our understanding of the more general mechanisms of visual cognition. Though devoid of language and presumably also of the associated higher cognitive capacities pigeons can learn, categorize and remember large numbers of diverse types of visual stimuli, some of them as complex as those encountered in ordinary human experience. Pigeons have, for example, shown able to deal with line drawings, photographs, real objects, and even holograms and movies. The main goal of our research is to investigate the cognitive strategies (including picture memorization, feature learning, prototype formation and the abstraction of concepts) that underlie pigeons' response behaviour in different types of categorization tasks, with categorization thus being understood as a flexible and adaptive mechanism of selecting from the numerous strategies available. Within this, we are particularly interested in exploring the parameters that determine which stimulus aspects control categorization.

The lab

The pigeons are group-housed in two outdoor aviaries (about 7 x and 3.7 m2 ) each of which directly adjoins to a room for experimentation (about 5.2 x and 3.7 m2 ).

Skinner box

The birds are carried into the experimentation rooms for their daily sessions,  which are accomplished in two operant chambers (modified "Skinner boxes"; Steurer et al. 2012). Training and testing procedures require the subjects to dis-criminate among two or more stimuli presented on a touchscreen and to indicate their choice by directly pecking at the chosen stimulus (-i).

The ADLB box

Unlike the two traditional Skinner boxes, the automated learning device for birds (ALDB; Huber et al. 2014) is directly placed in one of the aviaries. It represents an innovative apparatus for automatic testing of cognitive performance in groups of aviary-housed birds. The combination of highly controlled experimental testing and the voluntary participation of unrestrained animals has many advantages over traditional, laboratory-based learning environments in terms of animal welfare, learning speed, and resource economy. The birds can freely choose to participate in learning experiments by entering and leaving the box at any time. At the single-access entry, they are individualized using radio frequency identification technology and then trained or tested in a stressfree and selfterminating manner. The voluntary nature of their participation according to their individual biorhythm guarantees high motivation levels and good learning and test performance.