New math mavens = pigeons?

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Count on me

If you’ve hung around a big-city park, you may think that pigeons are countless — or uncountable. But according to scientists from New Zealand, pigeons now join the short list of animals that can count — or at least, can places images containing two countable items in numerical order.

Courtesy William van der Vliet
Testing time for the birds: pigeons got the right answer by pecking the image with the smaller number of items first. (That green square showed up briefly after a peck.) The results showed that pigeons can learn an abstract rule related to numbers — even though they cannot count.

It’s blue news for those who think only humans deserve human capacities. From empathy and altruism to murder and war, animals seem to have caught on to some of our best — and worst — tricks.

Now Damian Scarf, a post-doctoral researcher at the University of Otago, with his colleagues, has taught three pigeons to order pairs of numbers in the range from one through nine.

This is not exactly counting, but it certainly is a sign of numerical awareness in birds.

More important, the researchers have taught these retired racing pigeons the concept of smaller-to-larger, Scarf says. “Previously, this number abstraction was only known in primates, and now we have shown that it is not unique to primates.”

Serious screen-time serves science

The experiment began with a year-long training period, during which the birds were shown pairs of images, each containing one, two or three countable items. If the birds pecked at both images, smaller number first, they were rewarded with some wheat. (Although the images never contained a numeral, we refer to the “number” they contain for brevity.)

To prevent the birds from focusing on color, shape or other non-numerical details, the images showed a range of items, so that the only correct answer would reflect their number rather than other distinctions.

“The training time reflects how difficult it is for them to abstract,” Scarf says. “It’s such a foreign situation, number is not the first port of call when presented with a stimulus to discriminate. That’s why we had so many shapes, colors, surface areas.”

Even if the birds originally made their judgments based on color, “we pushed them to use a different strategy, to break away from that. Number is not the default discrimination mechanism” for pigeons, says Scarf, who worked under advisor Michael Colombo of Otago.


Seven pigeons sit atop seven computer screens, each screen displays a set of different shapes in different colors

Courtesy Damian Scarf
The profusion of colors and shapes was intended to prevent the birds from focusing on anything except number, in a set-up photo that was not taken during the actual experiment.

A genius for abstraction?

This does not mean that the birds are counting, says Scarf. “It’s more a fuzzy representation in the brain of what ‘three’ is. We can apply this verbal label to three, but they cannot. Pigeons, and animals in general, don’t have a definite idea of a number, that’s why they don’t perform perfectly, and why we see the distance effect.”

When the numbers on the test pair are further apart, Scarf found, “the fuzziness overlaps a little less.”

A greater distance between the numbers produced a quicker response and greater accuracy. For adjacent numbers, like four and five, the birds scored about 66 percent accuracy, compared to more than 95 percent for numbers separated by at least six. Once the difference rose to at least three, the pigeons did as well as monkeys in a path-breaking 1998 study that opened the field of numerical “thinking” in animals.

Scarf stresses that the birds were not just regurgitating what they had learned, but were learning numerical rules. “The goal was to find out whether they could acquire an abstract rule. We were just training for one through three, but they learned some flexibility, an abstract, ascending rule for ordering numbers” that would apply to other numbers on the screen.


Old man throws seeds to a flock hundreds of pigeons, some on the ground and some flying<

Feeding countless pigeons in front of the National Museum of Modern Art, Paris.

Rooted in evolution, but where?


Monkey points at square in the upper left corner of a computer screen, two other squares at lower right corner

Photo: Peter Judge, Bucknell University
A brown capuchin monkey also has some mathematical ability.

Being able to recognize that one thing is more numerous than another could help an animal survive, Scarf says. “When food is available in multiple places, an animal has to develop an optimal strategy for figuring out where the most food is, and I think we have subverted that capacity for this task.”

Where this capacity arose is anybody’s guess at this point. The evolutionary lineage of mammals and birds divided about 300 million year ago, Scarf says. “If this derived from a common ancestor, it’s very old. It’s also possible that primates and birds have evolved this independently.”

“I do think it’s important, just as our study of mirror self-recognition in monkeys, from the fundamental standpoint of how these abilities come about,” says Luis Populin, a professor of anatomy at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, who has found that, under certain conditions, monkeys can recognize themselves in a mirror. “It’s very nice and is yet another step toward understanding how our cognitive functions develop.”

You have to hand it to these birds, which have set a new standard for avian aptitude. “The new part is the idea that this abstraction of numbers is not tied to training,” says Scarf. “Most numerical tests with animals involve training and testing with the same numbers, but we were training with a limited set of numbers and testing them with numbers outside the range. They learned an abstract rule, and that’s what makes this study unique.”

— David J. Tenenbaum


Terry Devitt, editor; S.V. Medaris, designer/illustrator; Jenny Seifert, project assistant; David J. Tenenbaum, feature writer; Amy Toburen, content development executive


  1. Pigeons on Par with Primates in Numerical Competence, Damian Scarf, et al, Science, 23 December 2011.
  2. Pigeons: Smarter than people?
  3. Or should we poison some pigeons in the park?
  4. Other signs of pigeon intelligence.
  5. What do pigeons and three-year-old children have in common?
  6. Quirky pigeon facts.
  7. Other intelligent animals.
  8. Spy pigeons.
  9. What clever birds.
  10. Monkeys count too.
  11. And so do hyenas.