The first time I watched the writer and hacker Josua Klein’s crow vending machine TED talk as a college undergrad, I was floored. It was my first exposure to Betty, to the capabilities of crows to manufacture tools, and the success of the vending machine filled me with ideas. I used clips from the talk for a variety of public outreach presentations and they were always met with the same kind of GTFO amazement that I love watching people experience as they learn about crow intelligence.
As I moved on to graduate school, however, and began to be fully immersed in the scientific community of crow nerds, I started to hear rumblings that gave me some pause. Rumblings that suggested the vending machine wasn’t all that it was cracked up to be and in fact, had not worked as it was implied in that TED talk. Since I’ve never worked personally with Klein, I’ll let my fellow crow scientists speak for themselves on the issue. You can find one of the graduate students he worked with relating her experience during a reddit AMA here, and as well as the correction that the New York Times Magazine was forced to run after publishing an article on Klein’s effort with the vending machine. If you don’t want to read them, suffice it to say the main point is that Klein gave people the impression that it had been tested on zoo and wild crows when it hadn’t.
Leading the public to believe that we’ve arrived at conclusions when we haven’t is the stuff of stress dreams for scientists, and it’s why the peer review process is the foundation of good scientific practice. By taking “results” that were only in the early stages of being tested and bringing them to the attention of the public without permission or support from the scientists he was working with, Klein burned his bridge to the folks who had offered to help him test the idea, and probably any other crow scientist he might approach next.
Which brings me to the recent article I read titled “This Machine Teaches Wild Crows to Bring You Coins for Peanuts.” No, it doesn’t. It might, but probably not. No one has been able to train wild crows to bring specific items in exchange for food, the website selling the machine even points this out. Gabi Mann did not intentionally train her crows to bring her things. They did this of their own volition which is why her collection is as diverse and unique and beautiful as it is.
The suggestion that this machine could train crows to bring you quarters, seems to hold about as much water for me as saying you could use a dog whistle to train wild wolves to roll over on command. The reason that the machine worked on captive birds in the Brooklyn apartment where it was originally tested is that, in captivity, you have a certain amount of leverage over an animal. You can motivate it with food or treats or affection. The chances that a wild crow would go to the effort of looking for coins when it could simply skip that step and look for other food seems insurmountable.
All that being said should you turn your nose up at The Crow Box if the idea intrigues you? No, go for it! Maybe yours will be the mind to figure out how to motive wild birds to participate. Or, perhaps you don’t care if it works or not, you’re just in it for a new experience or the joy of trying. Trying and failing is part of discovery and I see no reason people should wash their hands of it if it sounds like fun. Plus, even if it doesn’t work, you may end up learning different, but just as amazing things about these birds. Just don’t hold it against the crows if they decide it’s simply not worth the trouble and leave it to you to go collect the quarters you lost buying The Crow Box.