Scientists: Pigeons are brilliant mathematicians

Scientists: Pigeons are brilliant mathematicians


A study released Thursday finds that pigeons are among the more intelligent birds.

University of Otago psychologist Dr. Damian Scarf and his colleagues are reporting their findings Thursday in the journal Science. The team has reportedly discovered that pigeons have the ability to learn abstract rules about numbers, an ability that until now had been demonstrated only in primates.

“This is the first example outside of primates of a species being able to do this,” said Dr. Scarf in a statement released Thursday. “It would be fair to say that, even among birds, pigeons are not thought to be the sharpest crayon in the box.”

The team noted the the latest findings likely represent a trend among birds in general.

“I think that this ability may be widespread among birds,” said Dr. Scarf.

Previous studies have shown that various animals, from honeybees to chimpanzees, maintain the ability to learn to count when trained with food rewards. In 1998 a number of researchers announced the discovery that rhesus monkeys have the ability to count to four. Researchers also discovered that primates can pick up on numerical rules and apply them to numbers they have not seen before, allowing them to count up to nine without further training.

Thursday’s study finds that pigeons trained to count to three were then able to put pairs of numbers up to nine in order. The results show pigeons doing well at the task of comparing two numbers they had been trained to recognize. They also performed very well on the other two tasks, including choosing the greater number in more than 90 percent of the trials with the familiar-novel pairs, and about 75 percent of the time in the trials with the non-novel pairs, said researchers.

The team of researchers said Thursday that they launched the test with the hope of revealing whether pigeons could take what they had learnt from ordering the three images and apply it to images with higher numbers of objects than they had seen before. The team explained that the pigeons were presented with pairs of images with between one and nine objects and tested on their ability to respond to them in ascending order. Researchers said the test revealed that pigeons, do in fact, have the ability to apply learnt mathematics.

“While this is obviously a long way away from how humans can count, it shows that an animal with a brain structured quite differently to ours is still able to perform complex mental tasks of which only humans were once thought capable,” said Dr. Scarf. “Our findings add to a growing body of evidence that pigeons are among a number of avian species exhibiting impressive mental abilities that really do give the lie to the old ‘bird brain’ insult.”