View Full Version : Can Birds Read Train Schedules?

Little Brøther
01-20-2005, 08:22 AM
In Philadelphia, riders board outbound Market-Frankford Elevated trains on an open-air platform. The El doors remain open, of course, until the train departs-- an interval ranging from a few minutes during peak service to, say, fifteen minutes off-peak.

People being the pigs that they are, there's a constant supply of dropped and discarded food scraps on the El floor. Thus, various birds often hop in through the open doorways and pick at the available goodies. I've never yet seen one trapped in a departing El, nor have I even seen a close call, i.e. a bird exiting just as the doors close.

The birds seem to "know" that they need to stay close to the doors, and they also seem to synchronize their foraging with train departures. I realize that animals typically have an aversion to human proximity, so I don't expect a bird to hop right down the aisle amongst passengers. But I notice that they won't go very far into even unoccupied interior areas, even if there are abundant tidbits there.

How do they know when to leave a food-rich, climate-friendly environment and avoid taking an occasional train ride?

01-20-2005, 09:46 AM
I live in Chicago, and have noticed similar behavior among the pigeons here.

First, for the record, I once DID see a bird trapped on a train. Now, mind you, I didn't witness the actual moment of his imprisonment, just got on a train and had to duck on account of a really freaked out pigeon that was flapping all around.

That being said, for the most part, I think you're right...they seem to have a sense of when to get off.
I figure it like this. The 'L' in Chicago has been around for many generations of pigeons. Flat out, I think it's simply a matter of learned survival. If exposed to a condition long enough, most animals will learn how to time it, or anticipate it, or whatever.

Think of it this way...ever have a pet that would wait for you by the door when you got home? Think she was waiting for you there all day? Possibly...but in my experience animals have a much better sense of time than we usually give them credit for. The birds have just learned how this particular food source works...probably why they're able to survive in an urban environment.

Geeze...was that a long enough response... :rolleyes:

01-20-2005, 09:52 AM
Some birds do apparently have a perception of time. When I go to baseball games at PacBell Park in San Francisco, birds start circling the stadium only after about three hours into the game, knowing that the game is about finished and they'll soon be free to gorge on the dropped garlic fries.

Do the trains have an audio cue before the doors start to close? A bell? An announcement? Perhaps the train has a subtle change in frequency as it gets ready to move out of the station. Experienced platform birds probably can sense whatever cues the train has, and inexperienced birds probably just watch other birds until they can learn to associate the cues themselves.

01-20-2005, 10:00 AM
Yes, birds are generally wary enough that they won't venture too far into an enclosed space. This is not just because they have learned that the train doors will close, but because they want to avoid being cornered or trapped. They want to maintain a clear escape route. Also, after long training in the ways of train doors, they may well be able to detect cues that warn them the doors are about to close.

They screw up sometimes, though. The last time in New York I saw a pigeon riding in the first car (which had been empty of other passengers before I got on) on an elevated line. It didn't seem particularly perturbed. I chased it out at the next station, since I didn't think it would be too happy if it waited to fly out until after we had gone underground.

01-20-2005, 11:20 AM
I live in Chicago..... The 'L' in Chicago has been around for many generations of pigeons.

Funny, in Philly we called it the "El".

01-20-2005, 12:53 PM
For their departures/escapes, I'd go with audio clues:
- brake lines hissing as the driver prepares to engage the gears;
- warning beep that doors are about to close or else hydraulics or servos charging to physically close the doors;
- the cry of "Hold that car!!" echoing across the platform.

01-20-2005, 01:01 PM
How do they know when to leave a food-rich, climate-friendly environment and avoid taking an occasional train ride?
There must be some other 'signal' that they pick up on, the click of a relay, the starting of the door closing mechanism or something similar.

Dogs are very sensitive on picking up on even slight visual and verbal cues.
Presenting or withholding food or treat tidbits is powerful motivation.

Chairman Pow
01-20-2005, 01:42 PM
Funny, in Philly we called it the "El".

That's a point of contention that one occasionally hears drunks arguing about.

From this site (http://www.chicago-l.org/FAQ.html#1.1):

1.1 Q: Is it spelled "L" or "el"?

A: This seems to be a matter of opinion, though it seems the most commonly accepted version is, "L"TM. The key thing to realize is that it is a shortened version of "elevated railroad". Other cities have (or have had) elevated rapid transit systems and they too have used this shortened nickname. However, in other cities (New York City, for instance), it is used as a generic name, so "el" is usually utilized there. In Chicago, however, it specifically refers to a particular system and the more unique and specific "L"TM is used. But, still, they can be used somewhat interchangeably. But, two more facts also back-up the use of "L"TM for the Chicago system: CTA® publicity and literature uses it and the previous companies (mostly the CRT) have also used "L"TM for their maps, ads and publications.

FWIW, I was on the L yesterday and two pigeons got on the train. One got off after being shooed away by the conducter (she came out of the cabin and exclaimed, "aw, hell no") and I didn't see the other leave, but I didn't see it during the rest of the ride either.

01-20-2005, 03:01 PM
My experience with the Market-Frankford el is that the SEPTA employees can't read the schedule... think they could hire some pigeons?

01-20-2005, 03:37 PM
There's no doubt that birds can adapt to seemingly abstract manmade concepts. In David Attenborough's Life of Birds, he talks about a crow in Australia that figured out that (A) nuts would crack open when dropped on a hard surface, (B) roads make a good surface for nut cracking, (C) cars are even better at cracking nuts than gravity but are dangerous, and (D) crosswalks. So now he'll grab a nut, perch in a tree above a crosswalk, drop the nut into the crosswalk, let the cars crack it open for him, then fly down to the street corner, wait for the light to change, hop across to the nut, pick out the meat, and fly off.

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