While the crow’s high IQ, ability to problem solve and sheer numbers make them the bane of a farmer’s life, some scientists believe that we can harness their uncanny intelligence for the greater good of our planet.

Ever noticed the slightly sinister and knowing gleam in a crow’s sharp black eyes? Science says it’s more than a twinkle. Crows are currently ranked among the most intelligent species on the planet, with an encephalisation quotient (size of brain versus body size) equal to that of chimpanzees.

Crows are corvids, a cosmopolitan family of birds that also includes ravens, rooks, jackdaws, jays and magpies. Joshua Klein, whose 2008 TED talk ‘A thought Experiment on the intelligence of crows’ has enjoyed millions of views, explains that crows thrive with human beings. ‘They live everywhere but the Arctic and rarely more than five kilometers from people,’ he says.

‘They adapt to live with us and yet we try to kill them,’ he says, ‘like pigeons and rats. But crows have an intelligence that puts these other species to shame. Confronted with a challenge, they’ll fashion tools to solve it, or make use of their environment by tapping into their grey matter.’

Tokyo’s crows, for example, unable to crack hard nuts to get to their fleshy reward, have come up with an ingenious plan. They fly above busy roads and watch the pedestrian lights to make sure their timing is perfect. They then drop the nuts in the path of oncoming cars, the shells crack and the crows wait for the ‘walk’ light to retrieve the delicacy. According to Klein, just about every crow within five kilometers of pedestrian crossings in Tokyo is seen waiting patiently for the light to turn green. It’s a form of cultural learning we’re used to seeing in humans (bar some South Africans who treat a red traffic signal as an invitation to negotiate).

In Sweden, crows are even more efficient in their food sourcing. They wait for fisherman to bait their hooks and drop lines into holes in the ice. The crows then reel up the line with their beaks and eat the bait – or fish. in this competition with humans for food, unsurprisingly, the crows make no friends.

But their deviousness goes beyond snatching food from the next tier up the food chain. It seems that ‘breaking bad’ comes naturally. The females have been known to emit a cry of alarm, triggering their mate’s protective response. He flies off to confront the alleged threat and the female immediately enjoys a little hasty hanky-panky with a neighbouring crow – usually from another territory. When the cuckolded male returns, the female will be found sitting on the nest looking the picture of innocence. the avian version of Cheaters could flight soon…

Something that makes it all the more alarming is that crows apparently can bear a grudge, reinforcing their reputation for aggression as per Hitchcock’s The Birds, in which crows dominated the cast.

A group of students at the University of Washington were part of a project to capture, cage, weigh and tag crows on the campus. Clearly unimpressed with the birdnapping, they didn’t hesitate to show their displeasure when they were released. They were relentless in their terrorising of the group of students. The next day and the next and, in fact, for the remaining years, the young zoologists were continuously bombarded when on campus. So menacing was their behaviour towards the group of students, that when the next batch of students were required to capture and tag crows, they were told to disguise themselves with face masks and wigs. Seems it’s not called a ‘murder’ of crows for nothing.

These stories reinforced Klein’s belief in the species’ ability to reason and so he began his experiment using the Skinnerian technique (named after BF Skinner’s term ‘operant conditioning’), which involves changing behaviour by reinforcement to get a desired outcome.

Klein embarked on a project to train his pet crows in his Brooklyn apartment to use a vending machine. In the early stages, the machine simply had coins and peanuts on the tray. The crows ate the peanuts and left the coins. Once the crows got used this, they returned to find only coins on the tray. The crows figured out how to knock them into a slot to be rewarded with a peanut. He believes that the crow’s hyper- adaptive ability could mean living with them in a mutually beneficial way: for example, training them to lead search and rescue missions or to pick up garbage. Enter the concept of the ‘Crowbar’, which involves training crows to pick up a world litter scourge, the cigarette butt, for a reward. Far-fetched? Ludicrous? There was a time when the radio, TV, computers and the internet were considered just that.

The experiments have already been done.

Industrial designers Ruben van der Vleuten and Bob Spikman came up with the Crowbar concept when they noticed the tremendous number of cigarette butts around them in a park in  Amsterdam and started theorising about a solution. It is said that 6 trillion cigarettes are puffed away annually and around two-thirds of the non- biodegradable butts end up in the environment. South Africa is no different. Every year billions of cigarette butts end up in dumpsters, landfills, shorelines, streets and on our pavements.

Robot butt collectors were vetoed, so the two turned their attention to birds. Pigeons, found in their tens of thousands in Amsterdam, are evidently too low down on the pecking order or are literally too bird- brained. It was when these two young idea mongers bumped into Klein that ‘ludicrous’ became ‘brilliant’.‘

What you want is the crows to associate food with butts,’ Van der Vleuten explains. The first step presents the crow with food and a butt on a tray in the vending machine. The food is always there next to the butt, so the crow learns to come back for more.

The second step involves taking away the food, which only drops from the machine just after the crow arrives. ‘So the crow gets used to the machine doing things,’ Spikman says. ‘The third step is crucial. The food is then completely removed, leaving only the butt on the tray. The crow, used to getting food simply by being there, will start to beak about, eventually knocking the butt off the tray and into the butt receptacle. The food drops when that happens.’

This step is repeated until the crow learns to associate dropping the butt with getting food. ‘The fourth step is the only step where humans are involved. When the crow is comfortable with step three, a few dozen butts are scattered around the machine. Now the crow has to learn to pick up those butts and deposit them in the machine,’ Van der Vleuten concludes.

Once the butts around the machine are finished, the crow will go looking for butts in the ‘wild’. And hey presto! It may be a beautiful machine-animal symbiosis to help humans solve a human behavioural problem that’s poisoning the environment. Futuristic as it sounds, more astounding things have happened. If they succeed, the scientists’ only barrier to the application of the experiment on a grand scale is to prove that no bird will be harmed – or become a nicotine addict in the process.

There is a dark side to quick learning. Crows may be on a scale of intelligence with chimpanzees but find a chimpanzee with a twisted sense of humour. A crow in the US was observed provoking a fight between two cats and then purportedly refereeing it. In that case, might we be messing with the natural order of things and letting loose the crows of war?



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