At DFC, we are well aware of how motivating food can be. After all, the prospect of bringing more delicious barbecue into the world was the main reason behind our own pivot to the condiment and sauce business!
There are many other species (including monkeys, octopuses, and dogs) that are just as keen as humans are to do extraordinary things for FREE SNAX. But researchers have recently added an unusual animal — the hummingbird — to that list. And it turns out the teeny avian acrobat might actually source its meals with a truly amazing skill: counting.
Biologists at the University of St. Andrews set up a series of experiments with male rufous hummingbirds, who are known for their territoriality, and thus, long memories. They also have exhibited precise, repeated routes among nectar-heavy flowers in the wild, which indicated to researchers they had some way of knowing where the jackpot was.
“To find out, the researchers set up feeders with a nectarlike syrup in a valley in North America’s Rocky Mountains, just in time for the hummingbirds to start arriving in May. […]
To see whether the animals had a sense of numerical order, the researchers lined up 10 identical artificial flowers. They put syrup in the first flower and watched to see where the hummingbirds went to feed. Unsurprisingly, the birds went almost uniformly to the first flower, sometimes giving the others a quick check to see whether they also held a tasty treat.
Then, the team began rearranging the flowers after each visit, mixing them up — and even moving the entire line — so that the position of the flowers couldn’t give the birds information about which flower had the syrup. Even then, the birds chose the first flower in the line, suggesting they had a concept of “first.” And when the team repeated the entire experiment but baited, say, the third flower, the birds usually zoomed straight toward the third flower. This suggests they knew the third flower in line — regardless of where the line actually was — had the treat.”
This kind of spatial smarts results in an efficiency that must save so much time and effort in the wild. (Adjusting for body size, if a human were to eat as much as a hummingbird needs to in a day, we’d clock in at up to 155,000 calories! That is a lot of flitting around and sipping nectar!)
More research needs to be done, to determine if the hummingbirds are using any other hidden strategies besides counting. But the current results are promising — and testify to the power of food to spark the development of some amazing skills!