Teaching Pigeons… with Raspberry Pi!

I’ve seen and read a few pieces over the years that demonstrate our feathered friends might be a wee bit brighter than they’ve been letting on. There was a BBC documentary from a long while ago entitled ‘Bird Brain of Britain’ which showed some of the simply amazing feats that birds are capable of – including using tools and solving puzzles. Wonderfully, there’s a couple of versions available on YT, the quality is not the best but still highly watchable and definitely worth checking out.

During lockdown we’ve spent a lot of time looking out into the garden and realising the range of nature we get in our tiny patch of greenery. We’ve been feeding the birds and have been largely getting starlings, sparrows, blackbirds and the occasional finch / tit (never too sure which and they’re usually too fast to tell anyway!)

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Kids eh?

And then there’s Frank…..

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(We’re actually supposed to call him not-Frank, but that’s another story)

So, Frank’s been getting a pretty easy ride this summer, he’s definitely boss of the shed roof and likes to strut his stuff. I thought therefore, it was time to put some bird brains to the test.

There’s been a lot of research into Cognitive Behaviour in animals over the years. Birds have often been shown to have some pretty cool skills and there’s been many papers published in the field – including the fantastically titled Maladaptive gambling by pigeons which is all about pigeons pressing buttons and making some pretty impressive decisions for a bird! It was written by Professor Thomas Zentall, a world renown expert in the domain of animals and cognitive behaviour.

Pigeons can, with practice, recognise objects including switches and buttons and then make the mental leap to realise these buttons actually result in something happening. I find this totally fascinating and would love to see it actually happening.

With all of that in mind, and little clue of how to go about it (as usual), I began to hack together a seed dispenser that could be pigeon-operated.

Introducing the SmartFrank 3000 (TM) – now available in literally no stores!

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Early testing with standard issue pigeon. (Foam Frank Model A.)

Two main issues immediately arose in the ‘how do I do this then?’ stage  (I believe this is also known as ‘design’)

  • The switch
  • The dispenser

I did some brief tests with a Raspberry Pi and a servo and quickly realised that, unless you wanted to deliver a veritable banquet to the recipient with every push of the button, a servo couldn’t move fast enough to open and close a hatch quickly or strongly enough.

I then found a stepper motor from an earlier project and some tests confirmed that a stepper was the perfect motor to move quickly enough, and with enough oomph to hold back a fair weight of seed when not in operation.

I 3D printed a ‘flap’ for the stepper, and a nozzle that fits over the neck of a two litre drinks bottle.

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The motor set up.

I then laser cut some pieces to make a frame and hold it all together.

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It took a while to get the timing on the stepper just right to give a pretty consistent delivery of the seed. Yeah, there was quite lot of this whilst working it out!… :/

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Moving on to the switch, I realised that this isn’t the first animal-Pi-interaction I’ve worked on. I previously designed a prototype switch that could be used by service dogs in people’s homes. The button below went into a 3D printed case which our canine friend could then nudge with its nose and the signal was transmitted over radio to operate switches etc.

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Not going to work this time however..

Also, RS Components and the like aren’t overflowing with pigeon-focused electronics (seems a bit remiss) so I had to come up with something else.

The result was sort of an ice-cream sandwich lookalike made from 3mm ply and some sponge as the spring.

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I soldered some wires to a spring clip from an old photo frame and added a bolt and two nuts.

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(Should have taken the photo *before* sticking it all down!)

The second nut allowed me to very finely adjust the distance to make sure the switch was as light a touch as possible.

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The completed SmartFrank 3000! (TM) I added the ramp to help push the seed out and away and it seems to work well.

Behind the curtain…..

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Behind the scenes there’s a Raspberry Pi 3b+ running the show with a motor controller board to run the stepper motor. This runs from its own battery pack as it runs at 12v and is therefore too heavy for the Pi to handle directly. I also added a Pi camera and am using the motion detection script from a previous project to starting recording whenever a likely candidate steps up to the plate for dinner. Hopefully in this way I can get some really cool footage of Frank learning and earning :)

So, training now starts in earnest and I’ve set up an introductory version of the button to help guide Frank to his goal.

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I have suspicions that the motor is a bit noisy and will probably make him jump to start with. But he no longer bothers to fly off the shed roof when we go out into the garden so he seems to pretty quickly adapt to new stimuli.  From reading and watching I expect it to take a week or two for the birds to get used to it and start to investigate. I’m going to weather proof it and set up a semi-permanent footing on the shed roof (largely so it doesn’t just blow away).

This was a fairly straightforward project to put together, I suspect the real challenge is just beginning. I’m genuinely excited to see how this works out and whether Frank has got some smarts! I’m confident based on previous (serious) work that this is genuinely possible. It’s going to be fun finding out 😀

The Bird Brain of Britain programme from the BBC inspired a whole wave of families and children across the country to build puzzles for our feathered friends to solve, which they did with astonishing degrees of success. I’d love to see a 21st century version of this to see how they have adapted to new technology! The whole programme is brilliant but if you want to see what pigeons are capable of (and what I’d love to build next!) skip to 21:15 here: Bird Brain of Britain

Stay tuned for training progress and updates!

UPDATE 17/08/2020

So – that design was a bit pants… Here’s the significantly improved V2.0! – Click HERE for details.

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