Probably no better than humans can
You can play this game with children or with adults: the result would be the same. If you have, 15 cards, each with a different and randomly placed amount of black spots, ranging from 1 to 15, and then ever so briefly showed a card to the audience letting them guess how many spots they’d see, chances are they’d only give the right answer if there are no more than 6 or 7 spots to be seen. Of course, there mustn’t be time to start counting the spots. You can also randomly place some items on a table, covering them with a sheet and ever so briefly exposing the objects to the onlookers. Again, with more than 6 or 7 items, mistakes increase and amounts in excess of 10 will almost always be estimated wrongly.
Scientists have conducted similar tests with animals, pigeons for instance. Give a hungry pigeon a choice between 2 and 3 peas, chances are it will go for the three. Likewise if you offer a greedy chimpanzee 4 bananas in one place and 2 in another, it will go to the one with four (for dogs you’d better use bones). Clearly, animals have a concept of size and amount. But can they count? Let’s see. If a number of black dots on a screen is used to train dogs, parrots, pigeons, and even bees to connection with receiving food (or punishment), all of these animals can apparently distinguish the various numbers of dots shown to them as long as there are less than 6 or 7 dots. If you offer a reward in connection with three spots and punishment with 4, the animals will make no mistakes. However, if the choice is between 8 and 9, the animals will be as confused as the human when offered this choice.
But does that mean animals can count? It doesn’t, of course, and neither do the old reports of a horse known as “Clever Hans”, an animal that unknowingly to the owner picked up subtle signs emitted by the owner when the head nods of Clever Hans indicated its “counting” had reached the correct number. It could have been the horse owner’s smile, relieved appearance, anything that the horse responded to, but it was not counting. It is, however, not too difficult to teach a parrot (and I think the New Zealand “Kea” would be a good candidate) to take only as many pieces of food as it hears a whistle being blown. Budgies even learn to eat a fixed number of seeds, say 2 at the sound of a bell and 3 at the sound of a buzzer.
In 1974 a woodpecker in France mastered a pecking code in which one peck meant a pistatia nut, two a cricket, three a mealworm and four a cockchafer. This bird knew what it wanted when it pecked the food code: if its owner responded to four pecks with a nut or a mealworm, the bird would throw them away and begin to peck four times anew until it was given the cockchafer it had ordered. Perhaps the ultimate was achieved by Miss Seibt and her pigeons many years ago in Germany. To obtain a food item the pigeons learnt to peck at a target five times when three flashes of light were shown or two times when four flashes of light were shown. Whether the birds actually “counted” still remains unresolved, but that these pigeons had received a higher education remains undisputed.
© Dr V.B. Meyer-Rochow and http://www.bioforthebiobuff.wordpress.com, 2017.
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