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Counting Pigeons

January 9, 2012

New research suggests that pigeons, like monkeys, can count.

Transcript

BOB HIRSHON (host):

Counting pigeons…I’m Bob Hirshon, and this is Science Update.

Rhesus monkeys can put images in numerical order based on the number of objects in each image. It’s often assumed that this kind of counting ability is unique to primates. But pigeons can count, too, according to psychologist Damian Scarf of the University of Otago in New Zealand. He and his team trained pigeons how to count from 1 to 3 by putting images of objects in order on a touch screen. Then they introduced new quantities of objects, up to 9. 

DAMIAN SCARF (University of Otago in New Zealand):

And we found that the pigeons were able to correctly order different numbers of objects that they’d never see before.

HIRSHON:

This suggests that the pigeons aren’t just learning by rote memorization, but applying abstract counting rules to novel quantities. He says the skill makes evolutionary sense, because pigeons that can discriminate between areas with large and small amounts of food would have a survival advantage. I’m Bob Hirshon, for AAAS, the science society.

A pigeon contemplates how many objects are in the box (William van der Vliet)