What pigeons think about “direction”

If someone would present you with the display of a person stepping backwards on a treadmill and you were asked “Which way is the person going“ you might ask for more specific instructions: “The person is facing in one direction, she is moving as if walking into the other direction, but overall she remains stationary. So what do you mean with ‘direction’?” How would a pigeon respond?

Human are able to retrieve information from biological motion through at least two different channels: The global articulated structure as revealed by the non-rigid, yet highly constrained deformation of the dot pattern, and the characteristics of local motion trajectories of individual dots. In the example above, the articulated structure indicates the facing direction, and the local motion indicates the intended walking direction of the backwards walking walker.

In a new study that has just come out in the journal Vision Research, we tested eight pigeons on a task in which they had to discriminate stationary left-facing from right-facing biological motion point-light figure. We then challenged them with a number of test trials introduced into the sequence of the normal training trials.

Tested on backwards moving walkers, the majority of the birds indicated that they used local motion cues to solve the training task, while the remaining birds obviously used global, configural cues. Testing the pigeons on different versions of scrambled biological motion confirmed that each individual bird had made a clear decision for one of the two potentially available strategies. While we confirm a previously described local precedence in processing visual patterns, the fact that some birds used global features suggests that even the birds who relied on local cues probably dispose of the perceptual abilities to use global structure, but “chose” to not use them.

Rate of correct responses from 8 individual pigeons. In the case of backwards walkers, "correct" means that their response indicated facing direction rather than walking direction.