You can count on our feathered friends

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 24 December, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 24 December, 2011, 12:00am


It is time for us to put the derogatory term 'birdbrain' to rest. Birds, it turns out, are anything but dumb.

It has long been known that pigeons can count. But the latest finding published in Science shows that they are also able to learn abstract rules about numbers, in this case ordinal numbers.

The researchers from New Zealand taught the pigeons to determine the order of sets that contained different numbers of objects. For example, the set of two things should be placed before the set of three things; and the set of five things should come before that of eight. The birds managed to place in order sets containing up to nine objects, an ability making them cognitive rivals to primates, the only other non-human species known to be able to learn abstract numerical rules.

The world is starting to learn that animals are far more intelligent and emotionally sensitive than we have long assumed. When Alex, the world-famous African grey parrot, died in 2007, it made headlines around the world. Alex could identify seven colours, five shapes, count up to six objects and had a notion of zero, or having nothing. He spoke 150 English words and had a primitive sense of algebraic substitutions.

It is probably not that these birds were exceptional, only that they were kept by scientists who assumed animals were smarter than thought and worked hard to prove it.

B. F. Skinner, the behavioural psychologist, assumed pigeons were dumb and trained them to be suicide bombers during the second world war. Put inside missiles, his pigeons would steer the weapons by pecking on a lens to keep the target in the centre of the screen. Skinner was paid by the US military, but his project never took off. He believed animals could be conditioned but they could not learn.

Today, humanity has led more scientists to see animals not as objects, but as cognitive and emotional beings.