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PhD performance art: Pigeon courtship

Posted by Robin Abrahams  October 20, 2011 09:50 AM

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This is another one of the finalists from the "Dance Your PhD" competition -- this one, by Emma Ware about courtship in pigeons. (It's easiest to dance your PhD when your PhD is about animal courtship rituals, molecules in motion, or neural synaptic firing. Other topics are not quite so dance-able.) 

Good luck making sense of the abstract (linked above) if you're not a hard-core behaviorist. The basic idea is that pigeons can be fooled by a video of another pigeon going about its pigeony business, and will react to it as though it were another, live, pigeon. It will do this even if the video is toyed around with so that the taped pigeon is lagging in its responses, or otherwise not "acting right." 

When it comes to courtship, though -- well. There, the pigeons get serious. Boy pigeons are not fooled by video vixens. In other words, pigeons are paying more attention to potential mates than they are to potential friends or enemies. Some coworker pigeon starts acting weird, you just keep making small talk and pretending to ignore it, because that's polite. Some cute pigeon you're hitting on starts acting weird, you need to get out of there. No one needs another crazy ex. 

If you're in the bar scene, take note the next time you go out, and see if humans, also, are more attentive to the signals of potential mates than to anyone else. And then ask yourself (especially if you're single) if that strategy might backfire when taken too far. I've heard a lot of anecdotes of first dates sinking because one of the parties wasn't polite enough to waitstaff, or ignored their date's friend who happened to be at the same restaurant, or some such. Humans are more complex than pigeons: we judge another person not only on how they treat us, but on how they treat others, too. 


If you prefer your pigeons literary to terpsichorean, check out the short story "Two Disagreeable Pigeons" by Patricia Highsmith. According to Ms. Highsmith, it's not all happily-ever-after once the courtship dance ends. 

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Welcome to Miss Conduct’s blog, a place where the popular Boston Globe Magazine columnist Robin Abrahams and her readers share etiquette tips, unravel social conundrums, and gossip about social behavior in pop culture and the news. Have a question of your own? Ask Robin using this form or by emailing her at missconduct@globe.com.
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Robin Abrahamswrites the weekly "Miss Conduct" column for The Boston Globe Magazine and is the author of Miss Conduct's Mind over Manners. Robin has a PhD in psychology from Boston University and also works as a research associate at Harvard Business School. Her column is informed by her experience as a theater publicist, organizational-change communications manager, editor, stand-up comedian, and professor of psychology and English. She lives in Cambridge with her husband Marc Abrahams, the founder of the Ig Nobel Prizes, and their socially challenged but charismatic dog, Milo.

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