Crows are pretty smart. They even understand the concept of trade, so we may as well harness their intelligence to improve our world. A Dutch company called Crowded Cities aims to train crows to pick up cigarette butts along roadways. They would be able to drop the butts into a vending machine and receive food in return. In other words, they'll work for peanuts. But some ornithologists are skeptical of the plan.
John Marzluff, a wildlife science professor at the University of Washington who has conducted important research on corvids, pointed out that if you want to convince crows to work for you, you might have to offer them something better than peanuts.
“The challenge is making sure the food rewards are ... always there and they’re very high quality,” Marzluff said. Crows “can find lots of other things in their environment. And they routinely shift between things.”
There is, after all, a reason that crows live among humans: Our cities are full of things that they like to eat, from fallen Cheetos outside the corner store to discarded leftovers in the trash. Any Skinnerian training system would have to regularly offer them a reward that is better and more readily available than the options they can easily locate on their own. As Marzluff puts it, “The reward of a peanut is not very high. If they can go to a dumpster and get a pork chop bone with some fat or meat on it, they’re going to take the pork chop over the peanuts.” McGowan takes a similar approach: “It’s just not worth it to go around looking for cigarette butts to find a peanut.”