Pigeons

Discover Magazine has an article out on the Urban Bestiary. Or What you don’t know about the wild animals in your city.
Let’s start with Pigeons. Did you know they can count?

Pigeon

The official common name of the pigeon was recently changed from rock dove to rock pigeon. I preferred the term rock dove, which served as a reminder — and a surprise to some — that pigeons really are doves. People tend to separate them in their attitudes.

Doves are seen as clean in feather and heart, gentle, peaceful, calming, even holy somehow, and they have the prettiest blue eyelids. Pigeons are viewed as grimy, poopy, pestilential. They suffer the indignity of being utterly commonplace in human habitats.

Although Darwin’s finches have all the fame, Darwin wrote far more about pigeons than he ever wrote about the Galapagos finches or all of the island birds put together. It is common knowledge that pigeons were important to Darwin but less commonly known that pigeons were also beloved by Darwin. His studies led him down the road of personal obsession, where he kept a private dovecote and hobnobbed below his class with the pigeon fanciers of London.

I doubt that Darwin would have been surprised by the recent study published in the journal Science demonstrating math competence in pigeons.

Researchers in the Department of Psychology at New Zealand’s University of Otago began by teaching pigeons to order the numbers 1, 2 and 3. Images would appear on a touch screen, and the pigeons learned to peck the images in ascending numerical order.

Next, they were tested with a more abstract rule. Presented with pairs of images containing anywhere between one and nine objects, the pigeons again had to determine ascending order — if they were shown a group of four things and a group of seven, for example, they were supposed to peck the group of four first.

“Remarkably,” said lead author Damian Scarf, “the pigeons were able to respond to these novel pairs correctly.” And even more remarkable to primate-biased humans? “Their performance was indistinguishable from that of two rhesus monkeys that had been previously trained on this task.”

Pigeons can navigate by the stars. Why should we be flummoxed when we learn they can count to nine?

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