January 1, 1970 (Vol. , No. )

Kevin Ahern

Surely, one of the most surreal and scary of Alfred Hitchcock’s movies had to be 1963’s “The Birds.” Based on a story of the same title by Daphne du Maurier, who observed a group of seagulls hovering ominously over a farmer plowing a field, the movie depicts collective consciousness and aggression of avian flocks towards humans. In an ongoing exercise that will tantalize anyone who has ever watched a crow break open a nut by dropping it on the pavement, Josh Klein turns the tables on our feathered friends by exploiting their ability to quickly learn, their love of peanuts, and their willingness to work for their supper, to get a group of crows to deposit coins in a “smart” training machine in exchange for a meal of peanuts. The key to the setup starts with the device providing (at first) peanuts and coins freely to crows that land on it. After the birds adjust, the concentration of peanuts is reduced relative to the coins, which gets the birds accustomed to picking up and moving coins to find their food. In the third phase, only coins are provided, but if a crow accidentally picks up a coin and drops it in the right place on the machine, peanuts are suddenly released. Trained in this way, the birds learn to associate dropping coins in the machine with getting fed. Titled “A Vending Machine for Crows,” the experiment aims ultimately to teach crows without human involvement how to do everything from collect garbage to search and rescue. Mr. Hitchcock would surely have delighted in the irony of making crows do man’s bidding.


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