Puy du Fou, a venerable theme park found in Western France, has taken on some curious new members of staff: six rooks, hand-reared by the park's head of falconry. According to the park’s president, they are trained to pick up litter and cigarette butts, and they are about to make their public debut.
“The goal is not just to clear up, because the visitors are generally careful to keep things clean,” park manager Nicolas de Villiers told reporters, per the Guardian. Rather, the ultimate aim is to show that “nature itself can teach us to take care of the environment.”
At present, it’s unclear whether or not these birds will get their own uniforms. Here’s hoping that they get their own Twitter account, not unlike the one used by the members of Pigeon Air Patrol, an initiative in London involving the eponymous birds to monitor air pollution around the city. They will, however, be paid in treats whenever they pick up some trash, just like they were trained to.
Details are sparse at present, but training these sorts of birds is absolutely within the realm of possibility. Corvids – that’s crows, ravens, magpies, rooks, and the like – are renowned for being incredibly smart.
Not just problem-solving levels of smart, mind you, but more: They have the ability to conduct their own crime scene investigations on dead crows, the ability to remember the faces of dangerous people decades after the fact, and even a theory of mind, which means that they (perhaps) can imagine what it’s like to be another sentient being.
Rooks, for one, not only use tools to solve problems, but work closely together while doing so. Instead of solving problems using trial-and-error, they appear to understand cause-and-effect and can teach other rooks how to approach certain puzzles once they’ve figured it out. In fact, one study pegged this awareness of what is or isn’t possible as similar to that of a 6-month-old baby, and greater than that of chimpanzees.
It’s not particularly clear why they’re so cognitively capable, though. Like all corvids, they lack a neocortex, a recently evolved part of the mammalian brain that’s involved in handling, among other things, sensory, motor, emotional, and linguistic information. It’s seen as key to mammalian intelligence, but it’s noteworthy that corvids lack it – clearly indicating that the neocortex isn’t the all-encompassing arbiter of smarts.
There’s plenty about the intelligence of corvids that many are simply unenlightened to, so at the very least, those thrifty cleaners over in Western France will do a decent job at showing this off to the world. Good timing too: Researchers recently confirmed that crows occasionally have sex with their dead, so their PR was looking a little worse for wear.