15 August 2008

Training crows... to help mankind?

When I posted an item two days ago about starlings removing quarters from car wash machines, I was reminded of something I had seen long ago, but I couldn't locate it. Finally located it this morning.

The ten-minute video above is a presentation at the remarkable TED conference about how crows can be trained to perform tasks. The initial success was training the crows to find money lost by people (estimated at $200 million per year) and turn it in to a vending machine, which in turn dispenses peanuts to them.

This is the link for the website documenting the project.

The extrapolation is that crows might be trained to pick up litter and trash, or to perform other useful tasks.

The video has a number of interesting and sometimes humorous anecdotes and observations. This is an interesting tidbit: crows are distributed worldwide on all continents, but do not live "in the wild." They almost never nest more than a few km from humans...

This video (like most of the TED talks, incidentally) is worth watching...

Update April 2009: Mr. Klein's project was also written up in the New York Times in December of 2008, but after further investigation, the paper has published a "correction" indicating that the experiments he describes with crows may not have been conducted in a properly scientific fashion.
The Times has since learned that Klein was never at the Binghamton Zoo, and there were no crows on display there in June 2008. He performed these experiments with captive crows in a Brooklyn apartment; he told the reporter about the Brooklyn crows but implied that his work with them was preliminary to the work at the zoo. Asked to explain these discrepancies, Klein now says he and the reporter had a misunderstanding about the zoo.
So, the above talk, while thought-provoking, should be taken with a (large) grain of salt.

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