Young Scientist Project shows crows are no mere birdbrains

Transition year student finds crows can learn complex behaviour from each other

The 52nd BT Young Scientist & Technology Exhibition in the RDS finishes on Friday. Photograph: Alan Betson

The 52nd BT Young Scientist & Technology Exhibition in the RDS finishes on Friday. Photograph: Alan Betson


Irish crows may soon be providing a useful service, picking up litter and trading it for a peanut reward.

Pressing rooks and other Irish crow species into public service is an idea floated by Declan Duggan, a 16-year-old transition year student exhibiting at the BT Young Scientist and Technology Exhibition at the RDS.

He started a project to assess the cleverness of crows here and it did not take long for him to realise these bird brains were smarter than the average bird.

Declan started the project after seeing videos of the Caledonian crow, a bird that is able to make “tools” out of wire in order to collect a food reward. He wondered how our own crows measured up and in fact they also showed a high degree of intelligence.

Range of challenges

One involved opening up a box with a hinged top to release the food. Another more difficult one required the crow to use a handle to lift a container of food out of a narrow tube.

Declan found the crows seemed to learn from one another. Typically a dominant male would attempt the challenge. If successful the other birds quickly imitated what they had seen to get food rewards. “There was always a number of them there and they were definitely watching,” he said.

Having convinced himself that the Irish crows were up to the mark, he wondered how this might be made useful. “I wanted a practical application for this,” he said.

He was aware that hacker and writer Joshua Klein had trained crows to find coins on the ground and trade them in for a food reward.

“I decided to do the same thing, but getting the crows to pick up litter and place it in a bin. The training is all based on a reward given for an action,” Declan said. The challenge would be designing a bin that trades a reward for every bit of litter deposited, he said.

The ultimate would be to train crows to find cash notes and return them to the trainer for a peanut. But then, crows are probably too clever to give away so much for so little.