While humans seek convenience, animals seek new skills

This column published as "Creature Comforts" in December 2019 issue

David Matthews / December 02, 2019
David Matthews
Ravens and crows are known for their intelligence. Experiments have shown these birds have cognition on par with 4-year-old children.

And just like a toddler with a healthy mix of intelligence and boredom, it’s only a matter of time before something gets destroyed. 

This fall, a group of crows (or were they ravens?) was loitering in the parking lot of Central Peninsula Hospital in Alaska. With nothing better to do, the birds began picking up rocks, flying up into the air, and dropping them on parked cars.

At first the hospital’s security manager, Keith Randall, assumed that human vandals were to blame. To his surprise, the evidence pointed to black birds “observed over a period of time picking up rocks and dropping ‘em into the parking lot,” he told the Anchorage Daily News. “Multiple people have said, ‘Oh yeah, I’ve seen them do that before.’”

One of those people was off-duty nurse Cathy McDaniel, who was sitting in her pickup eating lunch and texting her husband when she heard a giant boom. When she climbed out to investigate, she found a rock sitting on top of her now-shattered sunroof. 

She tossed the rock on the ground and a raven (or was it a crow?) flew down, picked it up, and flew off with it. “This raven was sitting on top of the light pole,” McDaniel recalled. “I’m like, ‘Well, you dirty dog you!’”

The bird caused $1,000 in damage to McDaniel’s truck, only half of which was covered by insurance.

Randall has since tried placing a large fake owl in the hospital parking lot to scare the birds away, but they saw right through it. Most recently he’s been researching places to buy fake crows after reading that “hanging crows in effigy” can spook them. 

At least the mischief hasn’t escalated beyond damage. “We have not observed a bird in a vehicle,” Randall said. “Maybe that’s their next move, I don’t know.” 

Rat race

Of course, the idea of animals driving cars is ridiculous. Right??

Researchers at the University of Richmond weren’t so sure, so they built tiny electric cars and tried to teach rats how to drive. 

The cars were made from a modified robot car kit. A clear plastic food container was used as the driver compartment with an aluminum plate placed on the bottom. 

A copper wire was threaded across the cab to form three bars representing left, right, and center. When a rat stood on the aluminum floor and touched one of the wire bars, completing the circuit, the car moved in the selected direction.

After months of training, researchers managed to bring our worst nightmares to life. Given the proper motivation (in this case, Froot Loops cereal) the rats were able to learn how to drive the cars. 

The driving rats were also found to have higher levels of the anti-stress hormone dehydroepiandrosterone than other rats who simply rode in cars that researchers controlled.

Scientists believe that this could be due to the rats’ feeling more control over their environment, evidence that behavior therapy could be used to treat psychiatric illness in humans. 

Or it could be that the rats have realized they are one step closer to their goal of total global domination.

Refuge from refuse

While rats master the art of driving, humans continue to master the art of being lazy.

A major breakthrough on this front comes from the inventor of the SmartCan, a motorized accessory that converts your ordinary garbage can into a self-driving garbage disposal system. 

With the SmartCan attachment and mobile app, owners can program their garbage can to drive itself to a designated curbside area at a specific time on garbage day. 

Once the SmartCan senses that the garbage has been collected, it autonomously returns to its home base for another week. 

SmartCans are expected to hit the market in time for Christmas 2020, and will be the perfect present for that family member in Alaska who’s tired of ravens and crows dropping their empty garbage cans onto the roof of their car. 

About the Author

Matthews has been chronicling the unexpectedly humorous side of transportation news since 2000. The stories are all true.

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