Nature Corner: Crows are geniuses and you can cash in

Nature Corner: Crows are geniuses and you can cash in

The world's smartest birds can earn you some serious pocket money.

Welcome to the Nature Corner w/ Matt Trotter:

I believe it to be of the upmost importance that each of us are educated about all forms of life on our planet, seeing as our generation will be the ones tasked with making decisions on it in the not so distant future. I may not have the charms, boundless knowledge or soothing accent of David Attenborough, but hopefully I can spark an interest in the world around us by enlightening you on some of the lesser known weird-and-wonderfuls that nature has up its sleeve.

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No matter which city or town you call home, you are familiar with crows; those murdered-out, flying rats that sound like a drunken three-pack-a-day smoker trying to learn Cantonese. You’ve probably witnessed them playing chicken with road-trains on country roads, jumping aside seconds before being obliterated, or pulling apart rubbish bins like a horde of dole bludgers ravaging a shouted Maccas run.

The birds we call crows in Australia are actually Australian ravens, the largest of the corvidae family which includes crows, ravens and magpies - some of the few species that actually benefit from human settlement, and by far the smartest of the avian kingdom. All corvids, ravens in particular, are known for their large brain size and surprising intellect, thought to be as smart as a human seven-year-old. They are credited for numerous feats of human-like intelligence, including the ability to plan, learn and conspire, as well as possessing terrifying memorisation capabilities and an understanding of tools in their environment that rival and perhaps even surpass that of chimpanzees. 

Corvids also have a well documented and freakish ability to remember people’s faces for years, so if you’ve ever had that feeling like you’ve been singled out by those kamikaze October magpies every year, you’re probably right - since they can also tell their mates about you, passing on information through generations that you’re that goofy fuckwit riding your bulk rubbish acquired push bike through the park every Sunday. However, it’s the recent attention that is being paid to crows/ravens (we’ll just call them crows for everyone’s sake), that is letting us see them in a new light. The fact that they can be trained in great numbers to collect loose change and possibly drop it in your backyard, making you a sort of tacky entrepreneur that rivals the likes of the head pimp of the Canning Highway/freeway off-ramp window washing operation.

The Crow Box is a biological hacking experiment thought up by a Washington technologist Joshua Klein. He first reported on the project in a TED talk in 2008, which involved placing the vending machine like contraption in an open place where crows usually frequent. The idea is made up of a four stage process where the area around the Crow Box is first littered with peanuts, a favoured treat of crows, allowing the birds to get used to the machine being there. Once enough birds were around the machine it would start to spit out coins and peanuts into its tray (the second stage), so that the crows and other birds can become familiar with the noise of food being dispensed, eventually leaving an abundance of obviously uneaten loose change in the area.

This, the third stage, is where you begin to fuck with the birds, as the machine starts dispensing just coins alone. As other birds and squirrels are attracted by the machine's sound they would look for the peanuts, find none, and then leave; but the crows stick around until one of them works out that pushing the coins back into the machine with their beaks makes more peanuts fall into the tray. In the final stage, the crows would show up to the machine and nothing would come out, until once again, the Albert Einstein of the group figures out that all the loose change lying around can be put back into the machine in exchange for more peanuts. Since crows are voracious learners, the others would start learning from each other until there are hundreds of crows searching the area for coins and bringing them back to the Crow Box in exchange for a peanut. The implications this behaviour could potentially have on the world are vast; for instance crows could be trained to pick up rubbish or even engage in search and rescue operations, or, without sounding too much like one of those pestering online pop-up adds - you could earn a bit of pocket money while doing fuck all at home.

Just like rats and cockroaches, crows can thrive amongst human settlement, adapting and teaching their young various life hacks, making life easier for them amongst the concrete jungle; so instead of showing them hate and occasionally trying to kill them, it’s only fair that we hack them back and put them to work for ourselves. If you’re interested in building an avian empire, you can order your very own Crow Box HERE, and for the record, approximately $216 million worth of spare change is lost around the globe each year, and it’s not going to find its own way into your hands without the help of these intelligent, airborne garbage-eaters.

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