06 September, 2006

Pigeons may not know art, but they know what they like.

A study by Watanabe, Sakamoto and Wakita (1995) found that pigeons could be reliably trained to differentiate paintings by Monet from those by Picasso (even paintings they had never seen before). Some interesting facts about this:

  1. If the paintings were turned upside-down, pigeons were not as good at identifying Monets - but inversion did not cause problems in the identification of Picassos (duh).

  2. College students were trained at a similar task (but with Van Gogh and Chagall paintings), using the same training methods, were about as good as the pigeons.

08 August, 2006

Pigeon Heroes

I've just learned, via this BBC radio show, that more pigeons (32) than any other animal have been awarded the Dickin Medal for heroism. This medal is meant to be equivalent to the Victoria Cross. It has also been won by a slightly smaller number of dogs, a few horses, and one cat.

Gustav the pigeon is seen receiving his award here.

07 August, 2006

Lions of Florence

flaminio vaca's lion, florence

One of the most excellent parts of visiting Italy was seeing all the great lion statues that are distributed around the sites at Rome, Florence and Venice. Of course, the art is generally amazing, and may even be enough to renew one's faith in the capacity of humans to be great. But that's for another post - what I've been thinking about this morning is the lions, specifically. For example, this is a picture of a lion at the Piazza della Signoria in Florence. He was created by an artist who's not really paid that much attention to - Flaminio Vaca, and he's a copy of a Roman lion (perhaps the one who sits on the other site of the little loggia). But he's stunning!

And he's sitting across the square from a copy of Donatello's Marzocco, the heraldic lion of Florence. Also beautiful, but in a sadder, sweeter, way. The original Marzocco is in the Barghello museum nearby. Wikipedia has a description of these in which the Vaca lion is mistakenly labeled as Donatello's. Clearly, it is not.

donatello's lion Marzocco

02 August, 2006

Italian pigeons (Venice)

The Venetian pigeons in the Piazza San Marco are especially lovely. Here I am with Il Scacchiera ('checkers'), who was a very congenial companion.

Italian pigeons (names thereof)

Well, it's been quite a while since my last post - and in the meanwhile I've had a lovely trip to Italy in which I saw many, many beautiful items. Including, Italian pigeons. About whom I've learned that they seem to conform nicely to the naming conventions I've outlined here (perhaps with simple translations, such as "Il Pantalone" and "Il Blu"). For example, this bird - Il Pantalone - was sitting on a ledge on the Santa Maria della Fiore in Florence. Isn't he lovely?

09 June, 2006

Emails to Barbaro

So, Barbaro is continuing to recover from his injury, in the care of the University of Pennsylvania's Vet school. Who, very appropriately, are raking in the $$$ in donations based on their excellent care of him. His updates are easily accessible on the web, and they've established a little app through which people can send Barbaro get-well emails.

Of course I have sent my messages to Barbaro, and I've been checking his message board (all the messages sent in by everyone else) regularly. I expected that my messages would be mixed in with millions of others, all from 12 year old girls. Because, well, who else would send a horse an email message? Right?

Wrong! So, I'm 42 years old, and it turns out I'm one of the youngsters on the message board. Here's a little demographic breakdown of the messages that were visible yesterday. There were 78 messages, all had been sent that day or one day previous, that included the sender's name and age.

Overall, the average age of a sender was 48 years.
Only 7 of the senders were younger than 20.
The oldest of the senders was 77, the youngest was 8.
64 of the 78 senders were women. This is the only part of the deal that I thought was totally predictable. Average age of a female sender = 48, average age of a male sender = 46.

Really, really, weird. Maybe little 12 year old girls aren't going through that horsey stage anymore? Or maybe nobody under 40 watches the triple crown races? I don't know. I would bet you that at least 90% of those posting messages to Barbaro were watching when Ruffian (undefeated filly) broke her leg in the match race against Foolish Pleasure (Kentucky Derby winning colt) back in the 70s (remember battle of the sexes matches?). Ruffian had to be put down - and I recently learned from the UPenn vet site that this is what happened to Ruffian.

She underwent a successful surgery to repair the leg she broke in the race. However, when she was coming out of anesthesia, she begain to flail about (as apparently horses often do) and ended up re-breaking that leg and another. Which is why now they float horses in a pool when they're coming out of anesthesia - they can flail and flail, and they won't re-injure themselves. Barbaro profited directly from Ruffian's experience - and here's the proof!

02 June, 2006

Pigeon Naming Conventions 2

In addition to the color-phase-based naming conventions provided below, a number of names are available for use in addressing or pointing out pigeons in one's environment that are related to the pigeon's behavior, attitude, or special markings. Some of the more useful of these shall be described here.

The name "Pants" should be used for a pigeon whose markings are a light blue-grey on his or her underparts, and which therefore give the impression that the bird is wearing some sort of light-colored trousers. Most often, Pants is of the blue-bar or solid color type - but in principle any bird with a lighter underside may be addressed as Pants.

Birds of the Cap'n variety, should they have a darker patch of feathers on the top of their heads, which patch is shaped as a triangle, may be called "Napoleon". There may only be one such bird on earth - but he is a very handsome Napoleon indeed.

The names "Greasy", "Sticky" or "Gummy" may be used for birds who have an oily-feathered appearance. This happens most frequently in environments in which the pigeons are stressed and unhappy, and so such birds should be addressed with more than just the usual amount of empathy and kindness.

Many birds in urban environments suffer injuries or deformities to their feet and legs - but these problems don't seem to affect their viability or overall health and well-being. These birds may be addressed (warmly) as "Gimpy", "Limpy", "Lumpy", or "Stumpy", depending on the nature of their problem. Birds who have injuries or deformities which seem to be endangering their health should be rescued and properly tended to rather than merely named.

All pigeons bob their heads as they walk - but a pigeon with a particularly salient bobbing motion may be called "Bobby" or "Prancey". Pigeons who seem to enjoy the twirling-high-stepping-pigeon-dancing type walking may be called "Dancey" or "Swirley".

Finally, pigeons of any type who display a greater-than-average acumen for graceful flight may be referred to as "L'il Lindbergh". Those who fly extremely rapidly and sometimes land near enough to others so as to displace them from their perches should be called "Maverick". Birds who seem to greatly enjoy flying, whilst sometimes being a bit awkward at it (especially in terms of take-offs and landings), and who often limit themselves to short flights at low altitudes, should be called "Orville" or "Wilbur". Birds who show up with spectacular feats of aeronautic prowess, but who appear to be completely lost while on the ground should be called "Amelia".

You will notice, as you watch pigeons in flight, that there are a great many more Li'l Lindbergh and Maverick type birds than befit any of the other aeronautical names.

26 May, 2006

Pigeons Dream

Another reason to believe pigeons are smart.

In the early 1970's (Tyver and Allison, 1972, A Polygraphic and Behavioral Study of Sleep in the Pigeon. Experimental Neurology, 35, 138-153), evidence was found to show that pigeons, like humans and other mammals, have 'paradoxical sleep' (read: "REM sleep") cycles. Pigeon sleep is apparently similar in nature to guinea pig sleep - pigeons are light sleepers, and easily roused (a common trait amongst prey animals).

So, what do pigeons dream? What do guinea pigs dream, for that matter? I don't know - but it seems to me that if you dream you have a mental life of some sort. Which has something to do with being smart. Don't you think?

24 May, 2006

Pigeons think in logarithms

Pigeons are smart. If you disbelieve, here's one thing to check out: news from New Scientist online about pigeons' categorization of segments of time. Their behavior 'conforms neatly' to the logarithmic model (which may also characterize some kinds of human thought).

23 May, 2006

Pigeon Naming Practice 1

For practice in using the pigeon naming conventions, you may wish to name the pigeons in this photo. Or, for a slightly greater challenge, try this one. Note that proper naming of the birds in this picture may require additional tools beyond those provided in the previous post.
(Correct answers: picture 1, left-to-right: Cap'n, Cloudy, and Patches. Picture 2, left-to-right: Pants, Sarge, Cap'n and Rusty.)

Pigeon Post The First - Naming Conventions 1

It is my belief that pigeons (and by 'pigeons' I mean the birds that everyone complains about, that gather in great groups in large cities and all that most people notice about them is that they tend to poop. Of course, everybody poops - so it doesn't seem fair to hold that against them) are actually completely delightful creatures. I intend to create several posts to support this argument. This one, however, won't. It simply proposes a set of conventions by which I believe that all urban pigeons can be named. The system will not result in unique naming of individual pigeons, but will allow users to identify the various different color and behavioral patterns of the pigeons in their midst, and to appropriately address the various pigeons, should they care to do so.

If you take the time to notice, you'll see that pigeons (aka 'rock doves', aka 'columbia livia') come in a rainbow of color patterns. The most commonly found pattern, however, is the blue-bar pattern. Here is a pigeon of that pattern. Pigeons in this color category are most felicitously named "Cap'n" - at least in the absence of other defining features, as will be discussed in later posts. If there are two such pigeons and you wish to discriminate between them, the larger or more prominent looking pigeon should be referred as "Cap'n", and the smaller or more retiring looking pigeon should be called "Sarge". In a group of three blue-bars, if ever you encounter one, the smallest or least dominant bird should be referred to as "Gomer".

Another common color morph is the checkered bird. These birds are both of the checkered variety, though it is clear that they deserve very different names. Standardly, a checkered pigeon may always be called "Checkers". However, more specific names are also acceptable. For example, the pigeon in the foreground of the photo has a very strong pattern of light and dark on his wings, with an overall pattern similar to the blue-bar except without the bars. His irridescence is of the green-blue variety. This pigeon should be called "Chuck" or "Chuckie" (unless the namer wishes to refer to the much lighter grey color of his legs and lower torso - this could lead to a different nominclature entirely). The pigeon in the background has a more subtle checkering pattern, and irridescence of the green-lilac variety. This bird should be named "Flick" or "Flicka".

Some pigeons are of a single shade, ranging from nearly black, through blues and pearly greys. These are referred to as spread colorations. A dark grey spread bird can be seen here. For these birds a range of names based directly on their colors should be employed. For example "Blackie", "Smokey", "Pearl", or "Blue"

Each of the varieties mentioned above is fundamentally colored blue or grey. However, two color morphs are based upon birds who are fundamentally reddish brown or rust colored. The first of these two is the red, who can be seen here. Reds should of course be called "Red" or else "Rusty" or else "Rosie", depending upon their hue and disposition.

Pigeons also come in a red-bar pattern. For example, this one. These birds have a smokey grey appearance, and copper colored wing-bars. Such birds should be called, as a default, "Comrade". A formidible red-bar pigeon may be referred to as "Commissar" - but this should not be frequently used. (Under some very limited conditions, one can imagine a red-bar who should be addressed as "Ivan Denisovich", but such naming strategies are by and large outside the scope of this project).

The last of the 'official' color morphs (other than the lovely all-white pigeons, discussed below) is the pied. Pigeons with significant white patches are considered pieds, regardless of the color of their overall presentation. A pied bird, such as this one should be referred to as "Stripey", or in more formal situations, "Tux" - but clearly these names are not appropriate for all pieds-only those whose base color is a deep grey or black and whose white bits are crisp and striking to behold. Other correct names for pieds are "Patches" if the bird has a very patchy or blotchy appearance, "CoCo" if the bird is red/brown with white patches (like cocoa with mini-marshmallows), as the bird at the bottom of this photo is, and "Cloudy" if the bird is basically grey with white.

A note to the wise - the latter three birds described in the previous paragraph may be called, by some fanciers splash rather than pied. Perhaps they're correct to do so.

The white pigeons such as these must be called "Angel" or "Peacey", or perhaps even "Paloma" or "Jesus" (as in the Spanish name, not the Anglicized pronunciation). Seeing such a bird is especially propitious, and should be regarded as such.

These are the names that should be assigned based upon color morph only. However, pigeons may have specific patterns of color marking that go beyond mere color morph, and they may also have particular behaviors, manners of movement, or habits which may also be used to determine their names. In subsequent posts, I will lay out the naming conventions based on these additional factors.

Barbaro, Bernardini, Breakdowns

Here are a couple of really great articles about what happened at the Preakness and what may be happening to thoroughbreds that might be making them less sound than they used to be.

Oh, and a picture of Bernardini. And a couple of updates.

One, unrelated to racing but very very sad nonetheless, Chris Antley was murdered, apparently, in California in 2000 - just a year after the Charismatic Triple Crown. And Edgar Prado rode at least one other ill-fated horse in the Breeders' Cup mile. In 2002, Landseer broke a front leg, threw Prado, and had to be euthanized at the track.

22 May, 2006

Barbaro, Funfare and Edgar Prado

Ever since Saturday afternoon's Preakness stakes, I've been worrying and hoping for Barbaro's recovery (and periodically crying like a little baby). Seeing him break down as he did, after breaking through the starting gates early and having to restart the race, was sickening and sad. He's clearly a great colt, and everyone says (and I believe) that he has Edgar Prado to thank, in part, for saving his life. Prado (along with several track officials) was able to pull Barbaro up quickly, and keep him from exascerbating his broken ankle.

You've gotta respect jockeys like Prado. The regulation weight that a horse carries in the triple crown races is 126 pounds. That includes jockey *and* tack. And the average thoroughbred weighs something like 1,300 pounds (plus or minus a couple hundred). That horse is (on average) about 16 hands tall at the withers (that's 64 inches or so). The average jockey is about 61-63 inches tall. In a race like the Kentucky Derby or the Preakness, the horse will run nearly 40 miles per hour - in a big whomping group of similarly gigantoid animals. Each with a teensy jocky perched tenuously on his back. And in the triple crown, these horses are 3 year olds (like, 11 year old kids), they're mostly colts (on their way to becoming stallions), they've only probably been ridden since they were 2, and they're apt to become very silly at unpredictable moments. It just has to take such tremendous courage to do that for a living. And to be the guy who's responsible for pulling the horse up and stopping him when he's hurt himself.

Chris Antley did that for Charismatic in the Belmont stakes a few years ago - I remember him standing just past the finish (Charismatic injured a front foot during the home stretch. He'd won the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness, and looked like he was going to with the Triple Crown), holding Charismatic's foot up under him, crying. The injury to Charismatic was career-ending, but not life-ending.

In watching the Preakness this year, I also remembered a similar sickening feeling from just a few months before. In the 2005 Breeder's Cup mile, a 6 year old colt named Funfare broke down. His jockey was thrown, and Funfare attempted to catch up with the rest of the field - thus causing irreparable harm to his broken front cannon bone. Funfare was euthanized within hours of that race. That was in October. The jockey was Edgar Prado.

Prado tried to save Funfare, but couldn't. He may have saved Barbaro - everybody hopes so. But no matter what, it's been a horrible year for Edgar Prado. I can't even imagine what he must be going through (though apparently he's already back and riding). Get well soon, Barbaro. Rest in Peace, Funfare.

Welcome to my blog!

Welcome to the inaugural post in my blog, Atrain's brain. I hope to fill this blog with interesting and relevant information, but may well simply fill it with daily thoughts and musings. Read at your own risk!