A Pigeon's Potential: Learning Abstract Numbers

Damian Scarf at New Zealand's University of Otago reports in the current issue of the journal Science that experiments he conducted with colleagues show that pigeons can learn abstract rules about numbers.

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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Pigeons are not known for their algebra skills or intelligence generally. They don't talk like parrots. They don't make tools out of twigs like some crows.

But Damian Scarf at New Zealand's University of Otago reports in the current issue of the journal Science, that experiments he conducted with colleagues showed that pigeons can learn abstract rules about numbers. Pigeons don't just count. The birds in his experiment could peck images on a screen to rank numbers from lower to higher. So they can sort, say, nine ladies dancing to one 12 partridge in a pear tree. Not those milkmaids a milking or pipers piping though.

His findings are similar to ones in the 1990s which established that the primates have math skills, meaning that monkeys and pigeons might be able to play gin rummy - at least for low stakes.

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