Superstitious Pigeons

By Anupum Pant

B.F. Skinner was an American psychologist, a behaviorist, and a social philosopher. He was also the inventor of the operant conditioning chamber – A.K.A the Skinner box, is a box which is used to study animal behaviour. For example, you can use it to train an animal to perform certain actions in response to some input, like light or sound.

Using one of his favourite animals, he designed an experiment where he trained a pigeon in order to examine the formation of superstitious beliefs in animals. Here’s what he did.

He placed a couple of pigeons in his setup which was designed to deliver food to them after certain intervals. Of all the things, the timing of food delivery by this apparatus wasn’t related to one thing for sure – behaviour or actions of the bird.

And yet, after some time in this automated setup, the pigeons developed certain associations which made them belief that the food came when they did something. They had developed superstitious beliefs.

For instance:

One bird was conditioned to turn counter-clockwise about the cage, making two or three turns between reinforcements. Another repeatedly thrust its head into one of the upper corners of the cage. A third developed a ‘tossing’ response, as if placing its head beneath an invisible bar and lifting it repeatedly. Two birds developed a pendulum motion of the head and body, in which the head was extended forward and swung from right to left with a sharp movement followed by a somewhat slower return. – Wikipedia

The bird behaviour isn’t much different from what humans do…

The pigeons started believing in a causal relationship between its behaviour and delivery of food, even when there was nothing like that.

It’s almost like the humans blowing on the dice, or throwing it harder to make a favourable number appear. Even when blowing or throwing a dice harder doesn’t hold any causal relationship with the event of good numbers turning up.

During other times, when people bowl down a bowling ball and twist  their bodies towards right to make the ball go right, they have in fact unknowingly developed a superstitious belief, just like the pigeons that there’s a causal relationship between turning their bodies and curving of the bowling ball. In reality, there’s nothing like that. The ball goes where it has to, irrespective of how they turn their bodies.

Just like in the superstitious pigeon’s case, the food would have appeared anyway. The pigeon didn’t have to do something to get it.

via [Wikipedia]

Subtle Differences

By Anupum Pant

Who’d have thought that a fun website like 9gag could teach you something useful. This is an artwork that I first saw on 9gag and wanted to find where it originated from (to give the artist its full credit). I believe, I Raff I Ruse is the blog which published it first. I could be wrong, but then the apparent source itself attaches no text that could confirms anything. And then it probably went on NPR, and consequently spread all over the web.

The artwork illustrates subtle physical differences between certain kinds of animals which look very similar to the untrained eye. It’s a very simple thing to know and you should definitely know it. The whole list includes differences between:

  • Ape and Monkey
  • Frog and Toad
  • Dragonfly and Damselfly
  • Ant and Termite
  • Wasp and Bee
  • Turtle and tortoise
  • Alligator and Crocodile

The Turtle and tortoise difference was one of these seven differences which I knew for sure. Then, I can definitely tell a wasp from a bee, an ape from a monkey, and an ant from a Termite, I still wasn’t very confident about the others. I bet you also knew at least one of these differences. And I hope you didn’t know at least one because I wish you learn something from this post.

alligator vs crocodile ant vs termite ape vs monkey dragonfly vs damselfly frog vs toad turtle vs tortoise wasp vs bee

via [9gag] and [NPR]

Australian Bird Makes Camera Shutter Sounds

By Anupum Pant

Until now I hadn’t even heard about, probably the most well-known bird of Australia, the Lyrebird. These birds are there on the 10 cents coins in Australia. Their feathers are beautiful, but what these birds can do is truly astonishing – The R2D2s of the real world.

The Lyrebird has been seen mimicking the sounds of at least twenty other birds. That’s not all. Some of these captive Lyrebirds have been seen mimicking sounds of human technology like a camera shutter, car alarm and a chainsaw too – as seen in the video below.

In 1969, as observed by an ornithologist in New England National Park, these birds were able to reproduce sounds of a flute, singing two famous songs of the 30s “The Keel Row” and “Mosquito’s Dance.”  They had learnt it from a farmer who used to play these tunes on a flute.

A word of caution

Although the video would lead you to believe that wild birds have started mimicking sounds of human technology, it isn’t totally true. The birds that has been shown in the video, in reality, are captive birds from Healesville Wildlife Sanctuary and from the Adelaide Zoo. While Attenborough makes it seem like the bird is mimicking “sounds of the forest”. these clips are not typically what these wild birds do in the wild.

Maybe it happens in the wild too, but it’s highly unlikely because the human technology sounds are usually lost amidst the forest sounds. Moreover, never in the past has there been a recording of this bird mimicking human technology sounds in the wild. Maybe they do, but science requires evidence.