Photo: © 2009 Jupiterimages Corporation
Adaptable. Resourceful. Trainable! Brett Martin discovers the untapped talent of these clever birds.
There are some people for whom obsession is an internal switch just waiting to be thrown—and nothing does the trick like the word impossible. Case in point: thinker, systems consultant, and self-described hacker Joshua Klein. A decade ago Klein was at a cocktail party talking to a friend who had a problem with crows flying around his house. The friend proposed wiping the entire species off the face of the Earth. Klein suggested that it might make more sense to figure out a way to make the birds work for people. "That's impossible," said the friend.

For the next 10 years, some of them spent pursuing a master's degree at New York University's Interactive Telecommunications Program, Klein found himself preoccupied with crows and other corvids, the family that also includes ravens and magpies. "It was a little like that aunt who one day says she likes ceramic cats and then everybody gives them to her every Christmas, until she has a collection," he says. He soon had his own collection of stories about remarkable crows—like the flock in Japan that had learned to drop nuts into the middle of busy traffic so that cars would crack their shells. Finally, as he cast around for a master's thesis project, his wife saw an upside to all those years of bird talk. "She told me to do something about the crows already, or just shut up," Klein says.

One thing his research made clear: Crows are both highly intelligent and extremely adept at making the human environment work in their favor. They're also capable of mischief, as Klein learned when he began working with a privately owned domesticated subject named Pepper for his thesis. One day when Klein left the room, Pepper destroyed his laptop and then locked himself back in his cage to avoid detection. (The beak marks gave him away.)

"He knew that every time I opened that thing, he had to perform circus tricks to get a peanut," Klein says sympathetically. "And he just wasn't having it anymore."

From all of this, the crow vending machine was born. The machine, which took about six months to build, is a wooden box outfitted with a perch, a feeding tray, and a chute. Through a series of behavioral lessons Klein designed, Pepper learned that putting a coin in the chute would cause a peanut to be dispensed. To test how other crows would react to the device, Klein placed an inoperative model in a dump in Ithaca, New York, where a large family of crows made their home. "Once they'd eaten all the food placed on top, they tried to figure out how to get into it," he says. Klein's theory is that crows could be taught to gather and deposit coins in the chute and they, in turn, might teach fellow crows.

In a world where Klein estimates $215,000,000 of loose change is lost every year, the idea of squadrons of coin-collecting birds is cool enough, but he sees other applications for his breakthrough. Why not train crows to pick up litter? Or gather kindling?

More important, Klein hopes his experiment illuminates something fundamental about how humans approach the natural world. He points out that while we tend to be big fans of endangered species like pandas, we're far less fond of species that are good at surviving among us, the so-called synanthropes—pigeons, rats, coyotes, crows. "I'd like to see us reexamine our relationship to these species. After all, they're only doing their best to adapt to situations we put them in," he says.

As for the friend who uttered the fateful "i" word all those years ago, Klein hasn't had the chance to rub it in his face. "We fell out of touch," he says. "I tried to find him, to say, 'I told you so,' but no luck."

Brett Martin is a correspondent for GQ and a contributor to This American Life.

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