Pigeons are classic model animals to study perceptual category learning. To achieve a deeper understanding of the cognitive mechanisms of categorization, a careful consideration of the employed stimulus material and a thorough analysis of the choice behavior is mandatory. In the present study, we combined the use of “virtual phylogenesis”, an evolutionary algorithm to generate artificial yet naturalistic stimuli termed digital embryos and a machine learning approach on the pigeons’ pecking responses to gain insight into the underlying categorization strategies of the animals. In a forced-choice procedure, pigeons learned to categorize these stimuli and transferred their knowledge successfully to novel exemplars. We used peck tracking to identify where on the stimulus the animals pecked and further investigated whether this behavior was indicative of the pigeon’s choice. Going beyond the classical analysis of the binary choice, we were able to predict the presented stimulus class based on pecking location using a k-nearest neighbor classifier, indicating that pecks are related to features of interest. By analyzing error trials with this approach, we further identified potential strategies of the pigeons to discriminate between stimulus classes. These strategies remained stable during category transfer, but differed between individuals indicating that categorization learning is not limited to a single learning strategy.
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