The official name for this idea is Corvid Charities but Corvids encompass more birds than crows so…. TBD.
This is based on many ornithological studies including this one at the University of Washington, the findings of a hacker/writer named Josh Klein and a non-profit I attempted to start a few months ago. After working and living in downtown Portland, OR among the homeless and addicted, I did a lot of research into mental illness, addiction, crime, homelessness and the links between it all. I pinned down affordable and accessible mental health programs as both the #1 thing that would affect all of those inter-connected problems and the most cost-effective way of trying to solve all those problems. I’ve long had an interest in animal intelligence but it turned towards crows with what ironically turned out to be a legend. The research into mental health, my volunteer experience and animal intelligence all came together after an off-hand joke to a friend.
This will probably be a better, more succint introduction than I could manage and I guarantee you this is fascinating – Josh Klein on the intelligence of crows at TED. He also discusses his crow vending machine which is center to my variation on his work.
The short version of my idea:
1) Crows can easily be trained to pick up money and put it in a machine to get a peanut. Other crows learn by watching, making this a replicating behavior throughout the community.
2) The #1 thing that would reduce homelessness, addiction and crime is access to mental health treatment. Portland is both #1 in heroin and homeless people per capita.
3) People are very conflicted about giving money for addiction and mental illness if not to adults in general.
4) People very easily give to animals. In this case they would be doing it literally
5) Put an art installation in a public area with explanations that it is a donation/wishing ‘well’ (sans water). The crows grab the money and use it to get food.
6) This becomes a symbiotic relationship/art project/charity fundraiser. People are entertained by crows and get to give for a good cause in an interesting fashion. The crows get much more nutritious food than they do in a city environment (dietary problems discussed in the white papers – http://www.josh.is/crow-machine/). It is basically socially engineering two species for the betterment of each other.
The original write-up:
This idea is based off hacker/writer Josh Klein’s studies of crow intelligence leading up to his crow vending machine. He taught crows to seek out money and put them in a machine for peanuts. I want to modify this idea to benefit mental health programs in Portland, something I have identified as being the primary thing affecting both homelessness and drug addiction.
The idea is to get crows that are either captured for banding or in for rehabilitation, mark them with a band as participating in the program and introduce them to the machine in captivity and eventually in the wild. My thought is to start off with one machine and one area (hopefully near or in a well-travelled park) and most likely one crow.
While there is $215 million dollars lost in change every year, I don’t expect this to be lucrative. The word of what is happening would spread slowly and PR could be done to speed that up. After press and a little time, I predict this would be a novelty and an alternative to handing out spare change downtown. People might even seek out the crows or pull money out when they see one. If nothing else, this will put some focus on the issues. I am thinking an art installation (think mosaic wishing well without water) with attractive signage telling people about the crows, where the money goes, etc. I predict people would seek this out to see the crows grab the money, know that it is going to a charity and would do this instead of handing out their money to people that may very well likely spend it on booze or heroin.
I present this to hackers because this is the community most likely to embrace this. This is hacking in that it takes possibilities and re-combines them in new ways. It is also hacking in that it is socially engineering two species at once. Most humans are good and do want to give but are especially conflicted about giving to the homeless, mentally ill and addicted. Humans also will give to anything regarding animals or children much, much quicker than they will an adult. This removes that internal conflict by using the crow as a proxy and ensuring the funds go to certain organizations that will use it appropriately. Eventually this could turn into groups of hackers tweaking both machines and crows to maximize gains and ease of use (wirelessly sending money collected, etc). In that competition there would be social engineering of us as well.
I realize there are concerns about the crow’s health and diet and would work with avian/corvid organizations to ensure the health of their rewards and general well-being. For those who think that we are teaching crows bad habits, they already live among us and eat our trash. Man has been manipulating nature since there was a man. Genetic manipulation of plants, domesticating animals, etc. We manipulate nature all the time by our very lifestyles and spread. Short of not breeding, I think the best we can do is to work symbiotically and ensure the health of the animals used. These animals are very intelligent and already live among us. By that standard, I think working with racoons, who now mainly live in urban areas, is a possibility that should be considered in the future.
Will the crows become a nuisance? Will the aggressively seek out money? This has never been done before and I don’t know. That is why this would start with one crow, one machine and a group of volunteers, avian experts and hopefully animal behaviorists. I’m hoping that this is interesting enough that time would be donated by those with that expertise.
Also, after this gets press I would love to send out a press release stating that we’ve trained squirrels to collect money for MS just so we can watch people try to hand quarters to dumbass squirrels and laugh.