Two stories in Science show how smart (and not-so-smart) birds can be. Just like humans, actually.
Researchers in New Zealand trained pigeons to acquire abstract numerical rules using the same techniques used on monkeys over a decade ago. Science News explains that after training, the birds had to “put pairs of numbers up to nine in order.” The pigeons could match monkeys number for number in competency, the scientists found.
The researchers posit two evolutionary possibilities: either numerical competence was a convergent evolution in primates and birds OR it’s a homologous trait derived from a common ancestor. Either way, what other birds, mammals and insects might also be able to perform these numerical feats with a little training? The researchers are confident there are likely more.
Why do birds make illogical decisions? Why do people? Researchers at Oxford University (the same folks that brought us the crow tool-use study) tested eight European starlings in decision-making. The birds were given choices of pecking two colored-keys, each rewarding the bird with a different type of food or prey. When presented the choices simultaneously, the birds became confused and made a poor decision, choosing the less tasty and nutritious option. When presented separately, in a sequence, however, the birds chose wisely.
The researchers call this irrational decision making a “less-is-more effect” and believe the same is true in human decision-making. Science offers a great human psychological perspective on this study.
And birds aren’t the only creatures we can learn from! Another recent study on sea snails shows that learning through irregularly timed lessons, rather than rigorously scheduled ones, is more effective for the snails and potentially human students. Read more here.
Image: P. Huey/Science