Highly Intelligent Crows Are Now Being Employed as Garbage Collectors

Today, six trained crows started a new job at a French theme park that looks like a 'Game of Thrones' set.

|
Aug 13 2018, 9:57pm

Photo by Colin via Wikimedia Commons

A French historical theme park has concocted a garbage collecting plan straight out of Game of Thrones. Starting Monday, an elite murder of six trained crows will join the staff at Puy du Fou to scour cigarette butts and litter from the ramparts of its replica medieval citadel to its fake thatch-roofed viking village.

Crows are notoriously intelligent, especially rooks, the cousin to magpies, ravens, and jackdaws that Puy du Fou is now employing. They recognize faces, use tools, and pass learned behavior on to other crows. They get high by rubbing ants on their wings, and they’ve attacked so many people one researcher mapped all the incidents to horrifying effect. Their intelligence makes them as relatable as they are frightening, like this Canadian crow who stole the internet’s heart at knifepoint.

It’s possible, then, to imagine them becoming productive members of human society as trained garbage collectors. However, it’s never been done on a scale as large as the 140-acre Puy du Fou.

The concept of training crows to collect trash was popularized by technologist Josh Klein in a TED talk based on his thesis at NYU’s Interactive Telecommunications Program. He’s spent more than a decade designing corvid-training systems with limited success in closed-off environments like his Brooklyn apartment. “The difficulties in this kind of proposition are in building a machine to identify garbage versus anything else, and in convincing corvids to use it,” he told VICE.

For now, the process behind Puy du Fou’s garbage birds is a bit of a mystery. The park has not responded to a request for more information about how they trained their new employees.

Klein also reached out to see if he can help, and hasn’t heard back—but he has a theory. “The key element, in my opinion, is that they're using trained birds. So really they could have something as simple as a bucket and a human trainer with treats; that would illustrate that rooks are smart enough to identify and fetch trash in exchange for a reward and potentially get people thinking differently about this, which is totally laudable,” he said.

Puy du Fou president Nicolas de Villiers told AFP the park won’t be reliant on the crows alone. Using them as garbage collectors is more of a symbolic achievement. "The goal is not just to clear up, because the visitors are generally careful to keep things clean,” he said. “Nature itself can teach us to take care of the environment."

Sign up for our newsletter to get the best of VICE delivered to your inbox daily.

Follow Beckett Mufson on Twitter and Instagram.

More VICE
Vice Channels