A pigeon walks into an art museum…

Consider the pigeon. Among birds, they are distinguished by their abilities to drink water through their nostrils and to raise their babies on a diet of human trash. It might surprise you, then, to learn that a number of scientific studies have focused on pigeons’ taste in art.

This abstract work, in feces and found lamppost, really captures the satisfaction of finding a good place to perch.

This abstract work, in feces and found lamppost, really captures the satisfaction of finding a good place to perch.

To be fair, these studies aren’t aimed at divining pigeons’ preferences so that museums can better appeal to the aesthetics of critical tastemaker pigeons; the goal is to understand how animals perceive images. Pigeons are easily raised and trained, so they are a good model to look at visual processing in birds. And why use art? “Discrimination of visual arts is an extreme example of higher visual cognition” (Watanabe 2011). So there is logic to this. But it still produces papers with titles like “Van Gogh, Chagall and pigeons.”

Pigeons can learn to distinguish watercolor paintings from pastel paintings. Pigeons can learn categories of paintings: pigeons trained to distinguish Monet from Picasso were able to generalize from Monet to other impressionists and from Picasso to other cubists. They were less able to correctly distinguish impressionists from cubists when the paintings were “mosaicized”—and so were the humans, so, fair enough.

Pigeons trained to distinguish Western-style painting from Japanese painting were able to apply the distinction to paintings they had never seen before, and even to “scrambled” paintings and paintings converted to greyscale—although the pigeons did a little less well with the greyscale paintings, demonstrating that they do use color in deciding how to classify an image, but that it isn’t crucial.

Can you un-greyscale this sculpture, please?

Can you un-greyscale this sculpture, please?

Pigeons can even judge the quality of paintings. Specifically, they can judge the quality of paintings made by human children.

Think about that for a second. Your dear child comes home proudly waving some brownish smudge, and you say “Oh, very nice, is it a dog?” and the pigeon on the roof behind you coos “Actually, that is a terrible painting. Just awful. Horrible color palette.”

Yeah, that's really bad, kid. You should just give up painting for ever.

Yeah, that’s really bad, kid. You should just give up painting for ever.

I’m exaggerating a bit. The pigeons didn’t decide themselves what a “good” or “bad” painting was: they were trained to classify paintings as good or bad, with the quality determined by the researchers—and the children’s art teacher—beforehand. Once they were trained to recognize good and bad paintings, they were able to correctly classify paintings they hadn’t seen before as either good or bad. However, they became less good at doing these classifications when the images were scrambled, mosaicized, or converted to greyscale. This makes a lot of sense, since it seemed like the humans were classifying paintings at least partly based on color (bright colors = good) and pattern (coherent shape = good, scribble = bad); scrambled and greyscaled paintings would probably have confounded the humans too.

So if you show a pigeon painting, it will see more or less what you see, at least in terms of shape and color. Like a student in their first art class, the pigeon will be able to classify the painting according to the examples it has seen before. Whether the pigeon will also see beauty in the roughness of a peasant’s hands or the fragility of the ever-passing moment in a painting has not been addressed, but I’m doubtful.

But do pigeons have their own, innate preferences for art? Is there a pigeon aesthetic? Unknown—but pigeons may be natural cubists. When Patton et al. (2010) showed male pigeons manipulated images of female pigeons, the male pigeons preferred the images that had eyes and a beak to images lacking eyes and a beak (understandable!) but had no preference between the normal, unmanipulated image and the image where the eyes and beak had been rearranged. Male pigeons just want eyes and beak: they don’t care if the beak is above the eyes, or beside them, or what.

With that in mind, here is the rest of the joke in the title of this post:

A pigeon walks into an art museum. He browses, head bobbing, considering each work of art thoughtfully. He stops in front of Picasso’s “Woman with a Blue Hat.” He stares for a while, taking in the skewed perspective, the uneven eyes, the nose that appears to jut out of the side of her face. Finally he turns to the person next to him and says, “You know, I just don’t see the appeal of this kind of realist art.”




Patton TB, Szafranski G, Shimizu T. 2010. Male pigeons react differentially to altered facial features of female pigeons. Behaviour 147:757-773.

Watanabe S. 2001. Van Gogh, Chagall and pigeons: Picture discrimination in pigeons and humans. Animal Cognition 4:147-151.

Watanabe S. 2009. Pigeons can discriminate “good” and “bad” paintings by children. Animal Cognition 13:75-85.

Watanabe S. 2011. Discrimination of painting style and quality: Pigeons use different strategies for different tasks. Animal Cognition 14:797-808.

4 thoughts on “A pigeon walks into an art museum…

  1. Pingback: Jumble Spoiler – 07/16/15 | Unclerave's Wordy Weblog

  2. Pingback: Happy Valentine’s Day, pigeons | Tough Little Birds

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