The ALDB box: Automatic testing of cognitive performance in groups of aviary-housed pigeons


The combination of highly controlled experimental testing and the voluntary participation of unrestrained animals has many advantages over traditional, laboratory-based learning environments in terms of animal welfare, learning speed, and resource economy. Such automatic learning environments have recently been developed for primates (Fagot & Bonté, 2010; Fagot & Paleressompoulle, 2009;) but, so far, has not been achieved with highly mobile creatures such as birds. Here, we present a novel testing environment for pigeons. Living together in small groups in outside aviaries, they can freely choose to participate in learning experiments by entering and leaving the automatic learning box at any time. At the single-access entry, they are individualized using radio frequency identification technology and then trained or tested in a stress-free and self-terminating manner. The voluntary nature of their participation according to their individual biorhythm guarantees high motivation levels and good learning and test performance. Around-the-clock access allows for massed-trials training, which in baboons has been proven to have facilitative effects on discrimination learning. The performance of 2 pigeons confirmed the advantages of the automatic learning device for birds box. The latter is the result of a development process of several years that required us to deal with and overcome a number of technical challenges: (1) mechanically controlled access to the box, (2) identification of the birds, (3) the release of a bird and, at the same time, prevention of others from entering the box, and (4) reliable functioning of the device despite long operation times and exposure to high dust loads and low temperatures.

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Author Note

This research was supported by grants from the LEAB grant of a local sponsor and the Austrian Science Foundation (P19574 to L. Huber). Thanks are dueWolfgang Berger, for constructing the ALDB box and all mechanical parts; Michael Steurer, Andras Peter, Peter Füreder, and Michael Pichler, for help with developing the hardware, software, and electronical parts; Ulrike Aust, for discussion and help with the manuscript; and Alexandra Christian, for help with animal care.

Ludwig Huber, Comparative Cognition, Messerli Research Institute, University of Veterinary Medicine Vienna, Medical University of Vienna, University of Vienna; Nils Heise and Christopher Zeman, Department of Basic Psychological Research and Research Methods, Faculty of Psychology, University of Vienna; Christian Palmers, Adaptive Behavior Research, Vienna. Corresponding concerning this article should be addressed to Ludwig Huber, Messerli Research Institute, University of Veterinary Medicine, A-1210 Vienna, Austria. E-mail:

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Huber, L., Heise, N., Zeman, C. et al. The ALDB box: Automatic testing of cognitive performance in groups of aviary-housed pigeons. Behav Res 47, 162–171 (2015) doi:10.3758/s13428-014-0462-2

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  • Automation
  • Operant conditioning
  • Pigeon
  • Animal welfare