Stool Pigeon

Earlier, I wrote a blog on pigeons with missing toes. It got me wondering about pigeons in general and especially why we call a police informant a “stool pigeon.” The phrase originally comes from the practice by hunters of tying a dead, stuffed, or replica pigeon to a stool to attract other birds. It wasn’t the three-legged piece of furniture we today call a stool but more likely a tree stump. In the 16th century a tree stump was called a “stoale”, which morphed into stool. The phrase “stool pigeon” was later used to describe criminals who lured other people into crime. Today we define a stool pigeon as a police informer, but that definition may have come from the habit of informers hanging around bars, sitting on stools, hoping to pick up some information from criminals.

A person who is gullible or easily duped, especially in a gambling sense, is called a pigeon, apparently because pigeons are so easily caught or trapped. A “clay pigeon” is a person in a position of extreme vulnerability. To pluck a pigeon is to entice someone out of their money. “To put a cat among the pigeons” came from a phrase of the early 18th century referring to a man joining a group of women, and interpreted as something that is likely to cause anxiety or worry. The word pigeon is sometimes used in tennis to describe a player who doesn’t do their best in playing a particular opponent.

All this implies that pigeons are dumb; far be that from the truth. Pigeons have been trained to recognize art forms and are able to tell a painting of Claude Monet from that of Pablo Picasso and distinguish pastels from watercolors. They might even make good art critics. In a 2010 study, researchers took paintings done by elementary school students and had them rated bad or good by college students. The pigeons were then trained on these pictures to distinguish between the bad and good paintings. Then the birds were given paintings they had never seen before; they picked out good and bad paintings based on what they had learned before.

In a 2016 study, scientists showed that pigeons can differentiate between strings of letters and actual words. Some birds had a vocabulary of between 26 and 58 written English words, and though the birds couldn’t actually read them, they could identify visual patterns and tell them apart. The birds could even identify words they hadn’t seen before. And a new study suggests that the common pigeon can reliably distinguish between benign versus malignant tumors by looking at an MRI and, in doing so, could help researchers develop better cancer screening technologies.

A team of navy researchers found that pigeons can be trained to save human lives at sea. Project Sea Hunt trained a number of pigeons to identify red or yellow life jackets when floating in the water. The pigeons were found to be more reliable than humans and many times quicker when it came to spotting survivors from a capsized or sinking boat.

Bird brain, indeed.

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