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Courtesy of Andreas Nieder
Courtesy of Andreas Nieder

How Do Crows Count?

Courtesy of Andreas Nieder
Courtesy of Andreas Nieder

Crows are smart cookies. They can grasp analogies, use tools, and have bested human children in intelligence tests. They’re also decent at counting. 

Birds show an ability to keep track of numbers even without the parts of the brain that primates use to count. So how do they do it? A new study in the journal PNAS finds that even though birds and primates evolved with different brain structures, they developed similar neural processes to deal with quantification. 

Mammal brains feature a six-layered neocortex, a thin structure surrounding the brain which scientists think is involved in higher-level cognition. Birds and reptiles, by contrast, don’t have a neocortex. But, even though crows don’t have the brain structure that mammals like chimps and humans use to keep track of numbers, they somehow accomplish similar tasks. They do this using the nidopallium caudolaterale, a front part of the bird brain that’s comparable to (but not exactly like) a human’s prefrontal cortex.

Researchers from the Institute of Neurobiology in Tübingen, Germany, trained two crows to count, having them identify images with the same number of dots on a screen. They then recorded the crows’ brain activity during the task, checking in on 499 random neurons. About 20 percent of them fired during the tests. 

Certain neurons in the nidopallium caudolaterale needed to fire for the crows to count correctly. The researchers write that “if the neurons did not properly encode their preferred numerosity, the crow was prone to make mistakes.” These neurons contributed to “high-level, abstract visual representations” of numbers that allowed the crows to count properly. Essentially, the chemical codes that allow the brain to count looked similar to those seen in primates—but the structures were different. 

Determining how the brains of birds work helps scientists understand evolution. Similarities between the functions of mammal and bird brains could indicate that certain abilities evolved in a common ancestor, or that particular ways of coding information came about independently in different species. 

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Animals
Pigeons Are Secretly Brilliant Birds That Understand Space and Time, Study Finds
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Of all the birds in the world, the pigeon draws the most ire. Despite their reputation as brainless “rats with wings,” though, they’re actually pretty brilliant (and beautiful) animals. A new study adds more evidence that the family of birds known as pigeons are some of the smartest birds around, as Quartz alerts us.

In addition to being able to distinguish English vocabulary from nonsense words, spot cancer, and tell a Monet from a Picasso, pigeons can understand abstract concepts like space and time, according to the new study published in Current Biology. Their brains just do it in a slightly different way than humans’ do.

Researchers at the University of Iowa set up an experiment where they showed pigeons a computer screen featuring a static horizontal line. The birds were supposed to evaluate the length of the line (either 6 centimeters or 24 centimeters) or the amount of time they saw it (either 2 or 8 seconds). The birds perceived "the longer lines to have longer duration, and lines longer in duration to also be longer in length," according to a press release. This suggests that the concepts are processed in the same region of the brain—as they are in the brains of humans and other primates.

But that abstract thinking doesn’t occur in the same way in bird brains as it does in ours. In humans, perceiving space and time is linked to a region of the brain called the parietal cortex, which the pigeon brains lack entirely. So their brains have to have some other way of processing the concepts.

The study didn’t determine how, exactly, pigeons achieve this cognitive feat, but it’s clear that some other aspect of the central nervous system must be controlling it. That also opens up the possibility that other non-mammal animals can perceive space and time, too, expanding how we think of other animals’ cognitive capabilities.

[h/t Quartz]

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The Queen's Racing Pigeons Are in Danger, Due to an Increase in Peregrine Falcons
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Queen Elizabeth is famous for her love of corgis and horses, but her pet pigeons don't get as much press. The monarch owns nearly 200 racing pigeons, which she houses in a luxury loft at her country estate, Sandringham House, in Norfolk, England. But thanks to a recent boom in the region’s peregrine falcon population, the Queen’s swift birds may no longer be able to safely soar around the countryside, according to The Telegraph.

Once endangered, recent conservation efforts have boosted the peregrine falcon’s numbers. In certain parts of England, like Norfolk and the city of Salisbury in Wiltshire, the creatures can even find shelter inside boxes installed at local churches and cathedrals, which are designed to protect potential eggs.

There’s just one problem: Peregrine falcons are birds of prey, and local pigeon racers claim these nesting nooks are located along racing routes. Due to this unfortunate coincidence, some pigeons are failing to return to their owners.

Pigeon racing enthusiasts are upset, but Richard Salt of Salisbury Cathedral says it's simply a case of nature taking its course. "It's all just part of the natural process,” Salt told The Telegraph. "The peregrines came here on their own account—we didn't put a sign out saying 'room for peregrines to let.' Obviously we feel quite sorry for the pigeons, but the peregrines would be there anyway."

In the meantime, the Queen might want to keep a close eye on her birds (or hire someone who will), or consider taking advantage of Sandringham House's vast open spaces for a little indoor fly-time.

[h/t The Telegraph]

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