Oh, to be a crow.
Maligned as scavengers that torment their dead brethren. Portrayed as aerial killers in the 1963 Alfred Hitchcock classic, “The Birds.”
In France, though, the wily crow is getting a makeover. Puy du Fou, a historical theme park in the Loire region about four hours from Paris, has trained six crows to pick up cigarette butts and bits of trash and dump them in a box.
Mon Dieu! Are the pigeons of Paris next?
Not likely. The theme park’s owners would rather have humans properly dispose of their own candy wrappers and cigarettes. The crows are part of an educational campaign to prompt the ecologically minded to take their rubbish with them.
“We want to educate people not to throw their garbage on the ground,” said Nicolas de Villiers, the president of Puy du Fou. That is especially true of smokers who casually flick lit cigarettes and extinguish them with the tips of their shoes. As Mr. de Villiers put it, if crows can be schooled to pick up trash, why can’t humans?
“Sometimes it is good to make people feel a little bit guilty,” he said.
Christophe Gaborit, who manages the theme park’s Academy of Falconry, trained the six rooks, which are members of the crow family and were raised at Puy du Fou, the second-largest theme park in France. (Disneyland Paris is No. 1.)
The idea has been tried before, but with little success.
In 2008, the technologist Joshua Klein gave a popular TED Talk about the intelligence of crows, saying he had developed a crow vending machine that let birds trade coins for peanuts. The concept, though, did not fly.
And last year, three Dutch designers created a device called “The Crowbar” to teach crows to pick up half-smoked cigarettes. It was greeted with muted interest.
Ornithologists and bird experts are skeptical that wild birds can be trained to pick up after humans. Birds raised in captivity, though, have a better chance.
“The motivation isn’t there for a wild crow to do it on its own,” said Kevin McGowan, a crow researcher who teaches at the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology. “You’ve got to give them more than peanuts.”
Dead mice are good, he said. Baby chicks, too. And crows, like the French, are particularly fond of cheese.
That is where Mr. Gaborit, an expert falconer, comes in. Each morning, he brings his crows and a set of wooden boxes to the park’s entrance so visitors can see the feathered creatures in action, Mr. de Villiers said. The crow’s task is simple. Each box has two compartments, and when a crow deposits a piece of paper or trash in a slot, a drawer is opened to reveal a treat — bird food, mostly.
But while it may seem like work to humans, the birds are at play. Crows are intelligent and need mental puzzles to stay alert and well adjusted, said John Marzluff, a professor of wildlife science at the University of Washington.
“It is a challenge for birds to be captive for a long time,” he said. “They get in their moods. They can get self-destructive and pull out their feathers. They will pout in the corner.”
So far, the crows seem to have a cushy gig. They are on display four days a week, and otherwise fly around or do whatever birds do when they are not picking up cigarette butts with their beaks. “We don’t want to make them machines,” Mr. de Villiers said. “They don’t play the game if they work too much.”
Besides, he said with a laugh, “They are French. We have to be careful with the unions.” (France’s trade unions are particularly worker-friendly and quick to protest.)
Still, the experiment at Puy du Fou raises the question: Could Mr. de Villiers’s staff of 40 falconers teach pigeons to tidy up Paris and New York? No, he said. “Pigeons are not very smart.”
The idea is also impractical, Mr. Marzluff said. “It’s not proper to commandeer birds to do our dirty work,” he said. “Think of how many thousands of crows you’d have to train. You’d have a whole new industry.”
Instead, the professor offered this solution: “People can pick up their own trash.”
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