Scientists Test Counting Ability of Pigeons

Posted on December 26, 2011

Pigeon CountingScientists at the University of Otago tested the counting ability of pigeons and found they can count up to nine. The pigeons had to compare pairs of images picturing up to nine objects and order them by lower to higher number. The pigeons received a wheat treat when they pecked the images in the correct ascending sequence.

The pigeons were initially trained with sets containing up to three objects. Pigeons were presented with 35 sets of three images, each with one, two, or three objects of different sizes, colors and shapes. Then the researchers tested to see if the pigeons could apply their knowledge learned from ordering the three images and apply it to images with larger numbers of objects. The pigeons were presented with pairs of images with between one and nine objects and tested on their ability to respond to them in ascending order. The researchers say the pigeons were successful.

The pigeons did best when there was a greater difference between the two pairs of images. Study lead author Dr Damian Scarf says that the greater the distance between the numbers in the pairs, the faster and more accurate the pigeons were.

The researchers say the tests put pigeons on par with primates. Dr. Scarf says, "Our research not only shows that pigeons are also members of this exclusive club, but, somewhat surprisingly, their performance is on a par with that of monkeys."

The pigeons were not tested with sets greater than nine, so it is possible they can rank even higher sets of numbers in the correct ascending order. Dr. Scarf plans to next test the counting ability of kea, a New Zealand parrot species.

The pigeon counting research was published in the journal Science.

Photo: William van der Vliet