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Pigeon at a computer screen Scientists trained a group of pigeons to peck at computer touch screens with their beaks.
(William van der Vliet)

Can Pigeons Do Math?

New research shows that pigeons can learn to count

By Sara Goudarzi | null null , null
<p>The pigeons had to sort images containing different numbers of objects. (William van der Vliet)</p>

The pigeons had to sort images containing different numbers of objects. (William van der Vliet)

Pigeons aren’t birdbrains! Just like humans and some other primates (mammals such as great apes and monkeys), these birds can put numbers in order—showing they can learn abstract numerical rules.

In recent scientific experiments, pigeons were able to compare up to nine images, each containing a different number of objects. Then they ranked the images in order of how many objects they contained.

In other words, pigeons can count.

Until now, most scientists had believed that this level of mathematical know-how was unique to humans and monkeys. This new research challenges that theory.

PECKING ORDER

Scientists trained a group of pigeons to use computer touch screens by pecking at the screen with their beaks. They then presented the birds with sets of three images. Each image contained one, two, or three objects of different shapes, sizes, and colors.

The birds learned to peck the screen to put the images in ascending order—starting from the lower numbers. Each time the birds put the images in the correct order, they were rewarded with a treat.

In later experiments, the pigeons were able to sequence images containing one to nine objects. This showed that the birds could take what they’d previously learned and apply it to a more complex ordering scheme.

“While this is obviously a long way away from how humans can count,” says researcher Damian Scarf, “it shows that an animal with a brain structured quite differently [from] ours is still able to perform complex mental tasks.”

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