The Situationist

Bird Brains

Posted by Adam Benforado on December 27, 2011

As regular readers of the Situationist are aware, I went on a cephalopod kick a few months back and while I continue to be mesmarized by the cuttlefish, squid, and octupus, I dare say that the real action in comparative psychology for 2012 may be in class Aves.

Yes, birds, it turns out, are not actually so “bird brained” after all.

In their new Science article, Pigeons on Par with Primates in Numerical Competence, Damian Scarf, Harlene Hayne, and Michael Colombo offer some startling findings:

Although many animals are able to discriminate stimuli differing in numerosity, only primates are thought to share our ability to employ abstract numerical rules. Here, we show that this ability is present in pigeons and that their performance is indistinguishable from that displayed by monkeys.

The New York Times (James Gorman) had a nice write-up of the work on December 22nd:

The pigeons had learned an abstract rule — peck images on a screen in order, lower numbers to higher. It may have taken a year of training, with different shapes, sizes and colors of items, always in groups of one, two or three, but all that work paid off when it was time for higher math.


Given groups of six and nine, they could pick, or peck, the images in the right order. This is one more bit of evidence of how smart birds really are, and it is intriguing because the pigeons’ performance was so similar to the monkeys’. “I was surprised,” Dr. Scarf said. He and his colleagues wrote that the common ability to learn rules about numbers is an example either of different groups — birds and primates, in this case — evolving these abilities separately, or of both pigeons and primates using an ability that was already present in their last common ancestor.

Related Situationist posts:

Image from Flickr.

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