Brains Post: Hummingbirds May Be Able To Count, Study Finds

James Pulfer | | BrainsBrains
A Rufous hummingbird feeding on a sugar solution. CBC News Photo Submitted by Andrew Hurley

Can hummingbirds count in an effort to recognize a certain flower, in a chain of flowers? A former professor of biology at the University Of Lethbridge named Andrew Hurley, says yes. He has co-authored a study pertaining to Rufous hummingbirds, which are native to Alberta, Canada. The study was conducted with 9 birds as subjects and was published in a journal by Royal Society Publishing. “The brains of hummingbirds are about 7,000 times smaller than a typical human brain, about the size of a large grain of rice or small bean,” says Hurley. No matter the size of their brain, they are able to do certain tasks incredibly well.

Andrew Hurley injecting sugar solution into an artificial flower for the experiment. CBC News Photo Credit Bernie Wirzba

These hummingbirds have an astonishing knack for remembering locations, most likely based on visual cues to help remember places. If a person was to move a feeder a short distance away from where a bird had been feeding, they will return to the previous location first, based on a memory. Once they realize it is not there, is when they would start searching for the new location. The male birds have been found to determine the sequential order of a specific flower, in a row of other flowers. This is a method called Ordinality, comparable to the way humans determine which number coincides with each letter of the alphabet.

brown hummingbird
A rufous hummingbird in mid-flight. Unsplash

These experiments were conducted using sugar solution injected into artificial flowers, simulating the nectar they would find in a real flower. The goal was to determine if the birds could tell the difference between the flowers, and the location of a specific flower in proximity to other flowers. The researchers later spaced the flowers farther apart, keeping the same sequential order. This was to determine if they were using distance, or sequential order to determine flowers apart. The findings were that indeed they were using counting skills to determine the order and location of these flowers. What this may show us is how they feed in the wild, so efficiently. It’s probable that they allow time for the flowers to replenish nectar supplies, before returning. This being achieved by sequencing flowers using counting tactics, and returning in a certain order. Wow!

CBC News
Photo Credit: Andrew Hurly
Photo Credit: Bernie Wirzba

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