Crows are a fairly ubiquitous feature of our city’s landscapes. Be it feeding off downtown skips or strutting around playgrounds looking for bread crusts, the Pied Crow (Corvus albus) is always around. They are one of a very select few wild animals that have come to thrive alongside the destructive and wasteful human species. Others include rats, foxes, cockroaches and a few other bird species. These species are known as synanthropes, a word that defines creatures who have found benefit from living in or near the mostly artificial environment that humans create for themselves.
Harare, with its extensive suburban sprawl, open spaces such as wetlands and poor waste management, is a particularly rich stomping ground for species like crows. Scientist Philip Hunter, writing for the Science and Society journal, points out that suburbia has the best of both worlds, “combining open areas of parkland, woodland and heath with the trappings of urbanization, such as food sources and exotic species.”
Enter Joshua Klein, an American computer scientist with a big idea. He finds crows very interesting and is fascinated by their distribution – spanning nearly the entire globe, but almost always within five kilometres of human habitation. This is a reflection of their adaptability and a signpost to their intelligence.
Speaking at the world famous TED Talks, in a presentation called ‘A thought experiment on the intelligence of crows’ (watchable online at www.ted.com), Klein highlights research on crows that demonstrates their strong memories, ability to use tools and most interestingly their capacity to learn from each other in a process of what Klein likens to ‘cultural adaptability.’ He cites instances such as when a crow in Japan was seen dropping nuts into traffic so that the cars would break the shells before the crow carefully retrieved the treat. Soon all the crows in that area were doing the same.
Klein uses this as the basis to imagine a new kind of relationship between humans and animals. He describes a very conscious symbiosis centred around, of all crazy ideas, a vending machine for crows! Evidence shows that getting crows accustomed to dropping coins into a receiving area in exchange for food is certainly achievable given time and a four stage process which acclimatises the crows bit by bit to the ‘ins and outs’ of Klein’s machine.
Klein quotes a figure of $216 million dollars of change lost in America every year and envisions having the crows gather this in exchange for, well, peanuts! But this is just one application that we can derive from the adaptability of crows. What if they could put other things into the machine? What if, after a football match, the machines were deployed and the local crows, fully used to the process, could clear the entire stadium of litter in exchange for a bag of nyimo beans? Crows could separate rubbish for recycling or keep our streets clean.
Ideas like Klein’s are built on science, research, creativity and, taking a cue from the humble crow, adaptability. While we should never remove the duty of keeping our city clean from our own shoulders, by exploring our environment and studying the creatures that we share it with, new and mutually beneficial partnerships can be formed. As Klein says, “The main point for me is that we can find ways to interact with these species that don’t involve exterminating them, but involves finding an equilibrium with them that’s a useful balance.”