Do a few smart birds reset the mental pecking order?

As a teenager, I was addicted to sci-fi of all kinds.

One of the most persistent and intriguing conventions of the space adventure subgenre is “first contact,” initial encounters between humans and sentient aliens.

Often, these aliens have been depicted as having descended from non-mammals, usually dinosaurs. The common premise is that on some planets, dinosaurs survived and evolved into intelligent, technological species.

Leaving aside the rational objection that there is little likelihood that another planet would have had the equivalent of earthly dinosaurs in the first place, the creators of pulp sci-fi magazines and blockbuster space opera movies obviously have been attracted by the question: If there hadn’t been a Death Star asteroid, what might have happened to our dinosaurs?

In recent years, we’ve become more aware than ever that some of our dinosaurs are still here. We call them “birds.”

There is much and mounting evidence that, thanks to birds, the dinosaur lineage persists in some way in the modern world. So we can not entirely capriciously answer the questions of how smart dinosaurs were and how smart they might have become had they survived this way: “Study the birds.”

There are as many different kinds of bird studies as there are different kinds of researchers.

Some of this research is immediately practical, especially when it has application to the behavioural economics we’ve looked at recently here, in reviews of books like Thinking, Fast and Slow and Nudge.

Other research belongs in the fields of cognitive investigation that work to describe and understand the similarities and differences between our brains and the brains of other species.

Two recently-publicized studies illustrate the differences in approach and motivation.

The first, of the behavioural economics type, is a study of how starlings choose between different brands of tomatoes at different supermarkets.

OK, not really, but that’s how the study was presented by Science Daily on December 20th, in an article titled “Starlings Help Explain Irrational Preferences.”

In this study, starlings were shown to make more food choice mistakes when they were reminded (read the article for details of the mechanisms used) of previous contexts in which the now inferior choice had been the better choice. Birds that had previous context clues present made more mistakes than did birds that were not “reminded.” In other words, in such cases more information meant poorer choices.

Similar “less is more” results occur with human subjects. And, typically of evolutionary psychology in general and this kind of behavioural economics in particular, one of the researchers provided an adaptational explanation of their results:

Decision processes reflect organisms’ adaptations to their circumstances, and that for most animals this probably involves maximising their performance in sequential encounters (of the take-it-or-skip-it kind) rather than side-by-side simultaneous ones (of the take-either-of-these kind). In the former, being influenced by the context helps to make better decisions, while in the latter, the additional information adds confusing and irrelevant noise.

With at least a touch of self-congratulation, another scientist concluded:

A successful science of decision-making cannot be based exclusively on the psychology of decisions or on the evolution of this psychology: it needs both. We illustrate this by combining animal behaviour experiments with economic analyses of human behaviour.

It sounds as if these guys should seek their next research grant from a marketing firm and not a university, doesn’t it?

Less directly profit-seeking is the kind of behavioral psychology that aims to clarify the cognitive skill sets of different species. At least, unlike their colleagues from the first study, this second group of researchers hasn’t publicized a direct interest in consumer buying habits.

The second study features the crow’s chief competitor in the Smart Bird du jour sweepstakes, the pigeon.

It’s been clear for more than a decade that primates, from lemurs to us, understand the concept of “ordinal numbers,” demonstrating the ability to sort groups of objects by the number of objects in each group.

Now, according to “No Joke: Pigeons Ace a Simple Math Test,” published online by Science magazine on December 22nd, at least one species of bird demonstrates at least a rudimentary version of an understanding of ordinal numbers.

The researchers taught pigeons how to order two groups, each of which contained one, two, or three objects. Colour, size, and shape were randomized to show the birds that it was the number of objects that mattered. A successful ordering meant a food reward. Then, in the experimental phase, the pigeons were confronted with ordering problems consisting of larger groups of objects, groups with which they had no previous experience.

The pigeons correctly solved this test at a rate well above chance, indicating that they understood that the concept, not the number of objects itself, was the key to the problem.

The researchers used these results to suggest that maybe numerical reasoning is common among other animals, and that some other species might be shown to possess even higher reasoning skills than a recognition of ordinal numbers.

You’ll notice that in both studies, the researchers are comfortable making rather large and substantially speculative claims for the significance of their results.

Does your willingness to entertain these speculations change when you learn that the first study involved eight starlings, and that the second study tested three pigeons? Or that it took the second group of researchers a year to teach their three pigeons to choose correctly between two small groups of objects?

I’m not an expert in either behavioural economics or comparative cognition, but these sure seem like modest results to be producing such large claims, despite the obligatory “may,” “could,” and “perhaps” qualifiers.

These small studies are interesting, and I’m quite happy to read about the possible expansion of our appreciation for animal brainpower, but I don’t think that we can make very much of two tests with a combined sample size of eleven.

Eleven birds? EvenThe Twelve Days of Christmas had twenty-three!

One thought on “Do a few smart birds reset the mental pecking order?

  1. The comedian Eddie Izzard supposes that the dinosaurs kept on evolving their original forms and ends up with a dinosaur Church of England service as the ultimate level attained. Why no crow Einsteins?(see youtube)

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