These Clever Birds Will Work for Food

Trained rooks are theme-park janitors, and a freelance crow greets tourists in England.

These Clever Birds Will Work for Food

Trained rooks are theme-park janitors, and a freelance crow greets tourists in England.

Some birds are so clever and industrious that they’ve got quasi-jobs picking up after humans.

Puy du Fou, a history-based theme park in Les Epesses, France, has trained six rooks to pick up trash in the park and drop it into a container that then dispenses a food reward.

The theme park’s blog explains how Christophe Gaborit, the park’s head falconer since 1993, taught the hand-raised rooks to tidy up. He first trained two rooks using a box by putting a piece of trash in one slot, and then opening a drawer to reveal their food reward. The birds learned to associate trash with treats.

Now the six birds who have learned the rubbish-reward equation are tidying up the theme park, though the park is already quite clean. It’s really less about making the birds janitors than enlisting them as teachers, encouraging people not to litter.

A transaction like that is probably a no-brainer for these smart crow relatives, which range through Europe and Asia.

“Birds have evolved a level of cognition that we’re just beginning to understand,” says Don Moore, director of the Oregon Zoo.

So here at Weird Animal Question of the Week, we have to ask: What other “people skills” do crows and their cousins possess?

Clever Corvids

Corvids—crows, ravens, rooks, and their relatives—are especially intelligent, he says. They’re adept at modifying and using tools, can plan ahead and solve puzzles. (Related: Do Crows Hold Funerals For Their Dead?)

So why do people give their intellect short shrift? “Bird brained” as an insult came about before avian intelligence had been well-studied. “You could ‘shrew brained,’ or ‘mouse brained,” because those animals, like some birds have a smaller brains for their body size says Robert Mulvihill, an ornithologist at the National Aviary in Pittsburgh.

Parrots and some corvids , however, have larger brains for their body size, but they also have “these really high neuronal densities for their size,” and a brain region called the nidopallium caudolaterale, or NCL, is thought to act like our prefrontal cortex, the problem-solving part of the human brain.

“They have rewired the brain; they are achieving a higher level of cognitive functioning with a smaller brain volume,” Mulvihill says. This, like their hollow bones, is an adaptation that makes them lighter, to aid in flight.

Historically, Mulvihill says, primate intelligence has been played up, while corvids’ abilities “to analyze, remember, and delay gratification” were overlooked. (Related: Ravens Hold Grudges Against People Who Cheat Them.)

As for the rooks’ “job” of janitorial services, “it’s just another food-gathering behavior, something most animals are doing all the time,” Mulvihill says. He compares it to the process of a woodpecker that first has to drill a hole into a dead tree and then gets to extract a tasty insect.

And unlike salaried employees, he notes, they can quit when they’re full.

“You alright, love?”

Another surprise avian entertainer, though not in an official capacity, is a pied crow who was filmed by a couple visiting Knaresborough Castle in Yorkshire—speaking with a local accent, no less.

The bird asks, “You alright, love?” and answers “I’m alright.”

Many birds are good mimics, Moore says, like jays—which imitate hawks so that other birds will take off and the jay can have all the food—and starlings, which can also mimic the human voice.

Parrots, hummingbirds, and songbirds are all vocal learners, meaning they hear and imitate sounds. A part of their brain is dedicated to that process. In parrots, this area has an additional layer, according to a 2015 study, which may make them so exceptional at mimicry.

Crows, for all their smarts, aren’t quite as talented vocally. Because crows and parrots come from different lineages, Mulvihill says, it “stands to reason that there are differences in their ability to acquire novel vocalizations.”

Before Mulvihill was on staff, the National Aviary had a crow named Mickey, a former pet who had knew a few phrases including “Hello, Joe!” and “Kaw! Kaw! Kaw!”—not the sound, but the word.

No other corvid at the aviary has ever been taught or picked up human speech.

It’s likely that Mickey learned his human vocabulary as a chick. Some birds learn their songs as chicks during “a very narrow window,” he says, and then don’t change their song much later in life.

Too bad. Wouldn’t it be great to train a crow to say “Hey! You missed a spot!” and send him to the theme park?

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