It may surprise you to learn pigeons can count much less understand abstract rules about numbers, but in fact, researchers have proved just that. This skill is something previously only showed in rhesus monkey testing from the 1990's. Pigeons, super smart? Apparently.
According to the pigeon research, which exactly replicated the monkey study, the birds learned the abstract rule of pecking images on the screen in order of number — lower to higher. It took a year for them to learn this, but they mastered it, whether the images varied in shape, color or sizes. In the next phase of the research, when given unfamiliar groups of six and nine, the pigeons — like the monkeys that came before them — demonstrated they could pick the images in the right order.
Damian Scarf, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Otago in New Zealand, was responsible for replicating the experiment with the pigeons, and together with two colleagues reported the implications in the current issue of the journal Science.
They report it is either an example either of different species evolving these abilities separately, or of both the pigeons and primates drawing on an ability displayed by their last common ancestor. Incredibly, that common ancestor would have been around some 300 million years ago before dinosaurs and mammals roamed the Earth.
As reported in the New York Times, Dr. Scarf said if he had to guess, he would lean toward the idea that the numerical ability he tested evolved separately in the species. "I can definitely see why both monkeys and pigeons could profit from this ability," he said.
From gathering food items or keeping track of one's young, on a literal level it does make sense.
But, for those of us who have witnessed pigeons aimlessly walking in circles near curbs or lurking overhead with intent unknown, this newly discovered ability might come as something of a shock especially in context of what is known about other birds.
For example, parrots and macaws can speak; other birds are known to hide stores of food. New Caledonian crows can make and use tools. Similarly, seagulls drop mollusks onto rocks to break them open.
So now pigeons join the ranks of birds displaying abstract intelligence skills.
It should be noted it isn't clear whether other birds might have this math skill as well. Nor, did the research indicate whether they could count above nine.
Either way, now the humble pigeon might get a little bit of respect.