Pigeons, Like Monkeys, Are Better at Math Than You

Anyone who knows anything about anything knows that birds, of all animals, are not to be trusted. Have you seen a bird, recently, doing its little bird things (pecking?), acting as though its brain is the size of a Sno-Cap? Well, guess what: birds can do math. Higher math.

Pigeons, it turns out, are no slouches either. It was known that they could count. But all sorts of animals, including bees, can count. Pigeons have now shown that they can learn abstract rules about numbers, an ability that until now had been demonstrated only in primates. In the 1990s scientists trained rhesus monkeys to look at groups of items on a screen and to rank them from the lowest number of items to the highest.

They learned to rank groups of one, two and three items in various sizes and shapes. When tested, they were able to do the task even when unfamiliar numbers of things were introduced. In other words, having learned that two was more than one and three more than two, they could also figure out that five was more than two, or eight more than six.

Yes: birds—who, let us never forget, once dominated the planet as dinosaurs—are sitting around their bird compounds, counting and ranking objects. Ranking! One day they will use those skills when they round us up for the birdseed mines.

[NYT, image via Shutterstock]