Apparently we haven’t been giving pigeons enough credit. According to a study by New Zealand researchers, they can actually learn abstract numerical rules.
In a 1998 study, investigators concluded that rhesus monkeys could differentiate between the number of objects in a group and put them in ascending order. Until now, this was thought to only be a trait in humans and primates.
According to research published in the journal Science by Damian Scarf from the University of Otago in Dunedin, pigeons can be trained to do similar work, and be just as effective at it as monkeys. The birds were given 35 three-item lists, and then responded to them in order, first recognizing single items, then two-item groups, and then three-item groups. They even matched pairs based on the number of items, even with unfamiliar objects.
“Our results demonstrate a correspondence in the way monkeys and pigeons represent numbers and in their ability to acquire an abstract ordinal rule,” they said. “Our results suggest that, at least with respect to numerical competence, pigeons are on par with primates and are well perched to inform us about the selection pressures and neural structures required for abstract numerical cognition.”
They’re still unsure if monkeys and pigeons share this skill from a common ancestor, or if their mathematical talents evolved independently. According to investigators, the intellectual status of birds has risen significantly.
So is that what pigeons do when they steal your snacks on the beach? Turn it into a mathematical board game? I guess we need to start taking them a little more seriously.