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If someone calls you “bird brain” it may be a compliment: Researchers found that pigeons are better at multitasking than humans

Although pigeons have the brain of a bird, ironically, they are not exactly “bird-brained.” A recent research discovers that pigeons can multitask as fast as humans, and even faster in some situations, as reported by Science DailyThe study, published in the journal Current Biology, finds that pigeons are great in multitasking because their tiny brains are densely packed with neurons, which let them shift processes more rapidly.

The biopsychologists from the Ruhr-University in Germany carried out same behavioral tests on both humans and birds. Fifteen humans and 12 pigeons were asked to accomplish two different multitasking exercises. In the first task, the study subjects had to halt a current task and then shift to another task as abruptly as possible. On the other hand, during the second exercise, the study subjects had to pause for 300 milliseconds between the first and second task.

In the first exercise, in which real multitasking takes place, pigeons and humans equally slowed down under double stress. On the other hand, the pigeons were able to jump to the second task under 300 milliseconds — at around 250 milliseconds, in fact.

Pigeons have six times as many neurons as humans per cubic millimeter of brain. As a result, the average distance between two nerve cells in pigeons is 50 percent shorter than humans. Pigeons and humans both have the same speed of sending nerve cell signals, but because of the shorter distance between two nerve cells in pigeons, the researchers think that information is processed more quickly in the brains of the birds than that of humans.

“For a long time, scientists used to believe the mammalian cerebral cortex to be the anatomical cause of cognitive ability. It is made up of six cortical layers,” says Sara Letzner, lead author of the research.

However, the birds do not have the same structure as humans. Letzner adds that the structure of the mammalian cortex cannot be decisive for complex cognitive functions such as multitasking. “Researchers in the field of cognitive neuroscience have been wondering for a long time how it was possible that some birds, such as crows or parrots, are smart enough to rival chimpanzees in terms of cognitive abilities, despite their small brains and their lack of cortex,” Letzner says.

The study suggests that because of pigeons’ small — but densely packed — brains, the birds are able to shorten the processing time in tasks that require speedy interaction among various groups of nerve cells.

This is not the first study that finds pigeons are not precisely “bird-brained,” although it is true that they are not the most intelligent creatures.

Another study found that pigeons have human-like characteristics. Researchers at the Oxford University discovered that aside from humans, homing pigeons have the ability to build and pass on wisdom from generation to generation, according to The Telegraph. (Related: Animal cognition may have much in common with humans, study shows.)

The scientists found that families of homing pigeons were able to enhance their efficiency in navigating across large distances throughout time. They sent pairs of homing pigeons off on a particular path, and then repeatedly substituted one experienced bird with an inexperienced bird who had never flown the route before.

The study, published in the journal Nature Communications, revealed that the pigeons’ homing performance constantly got better, and that each new pair of pigeons flew a smoother path over the course. Newer generations of the pigeons were found to be better than those who flew by themselves or as part of a pair that did not change over time.

“Our study shows that pigeons share these abilities with humans, at least to the extent that they are capable of improving on a behavioral solution progressively over time,” says Takao Sasaki, co-leader of the study.

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