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Turns Out, Pigeons Are Just As Good As Monkeys When It Comes To Math

A pigeon counting.
William van der Vliet
University of Otago
A pigeon counting.

Scientists have found that pigeons are much smarter than we give them credit for and can be taught some complex abstract math. This is stunning because it's trait that has only been shown in primates. But according to a report in the current issue of the journal Science, researchers were able to teach pigeons abstract rules about math.

"Our research not only shows that pigeons are also members of this exclusive club, but, somewhat surprisingly, their performance is on a par with that of monkeys," the study's lead author Dr. Damian Scarf, a researcher at the University of Otago in New Zealand, said in a press release.

So how did the researchers test this? Here's how Discovery News explains the experiment:

"To do this, they presented the pigeons with three images containing one, two, or three objects. All three images appeared at once on a touch screen and the pigeons pecked the screen to make a response. If they correctly accomplished the task — pecking the images in ascending order — they received a wheat snack.

"'We took steps to ensure things like volume could not control responding in training and testing,' he said. 'For example, during training and testing, the higher numerosity did not always have the largest surface area/volume and thus the pigeons could not respond based on this stimulus dimension.'

"The images also came in different colors and shapes, so the pigeons weren't somehow linking those qualities to quantity.

"Next, the researchers upped the ante, to see whether or not pigeons had just learned to order 1, 2, and 3, or if they'd learned a more abstract rule. Scarf and his team presented the pigeons with pairs of images containing 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, or 9 objects. The pigeons again had to pair the items in ascending order. For example, if a pigeon saw 8 and 5, it had to peck the objects representing 5 first.

Amazingly, the pigeons aced the task and more remarkably they performed as well as the rhesus monkeys that were tested in previous experiments.

"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 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."

The New York Times addsthat scientists have not tested the pigeons with numbers greater than nine, "so whether a pigeon can count large numbers of bread crumbs or popcorn kernels is a question still open to investigation."

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Eyder Peralta is NPR's East Africa correspondent based in Nairobi, Kenya.