Crows See More Than Black and White

Birds are being trained to identify colours

Hilary Lyttle

Hilary Lyttle with crows

At first glance, there’s nothing colourful about Poe and Loki. Housed in an aviary on the U of G campus, the birds are as coal-black as any other common crow.

But these uncommon birds are taking on new colours. Under a new program intended as part crow enrichment and part public education, a crew of student volunteers is training both female crows to distinguish colours.

This fall, the volunteer team started the novel training program at Wild Ontario, located at the far western end of the Ontario Veterinary College.

Using classic conditioning methods, they hope to teach Poe and Loki to pick out colours on command. Far from mere curiosity, the group has a couple of goals in mind.

One is to give the birds a form of enrichment. Lianne Thompson, zoology grad and former crow team leader, says colour training is “great enrichment for them. Crows are such intelligent animals.”

The other main goal is to help connect people with nature, says Hilary Lyttle, the current team leader and a recent wildlife biology graduate.

Showing people how a crow can distinguish red from blue from green using only spoken commands is a great attention-getter, says Lyttle. From there, it’s a short step to drawing the public into a discussion of nature, the environment, and the effects of human activities on animals and their habitats.

“We’re trying to get across to people that crows need to have a wild existence and, because of human impacts, they can’t anymore,” says Lyttle.

Teaching the crows their colours involves target training using a variation of stimulus-reward methods made famous by Pavlov’s dogs.

The birds learn first to connect audible clicks with food rewards and then associate those rewards with desired behaviours. Eventually, a trainer need only point or tap on a perch, and the crow will fly to the spot on command.

Introduce a red perch and couple the pointing cue with the word “red,” and the crow learns to fly to that perch. Ultimately, the trainer drops the pointing cue and simply says “red.” The process is repeated with other colours.

Recalling the first time a crow picked out a target on her command, Thompson says, “it was really awesome and exciting.”

She learned colour enrichment training in Winnipeg, where she works as a keeper at the Assiniboine Zoo. She wrote a training manual that she has shared with her former Guelph team.

Here, several students work with Poe and Loki. Each bird trains three days a week, for about 90 minutes at a time.

Wild Ontario members hope to establish a permanent facility to house the birds and run public teaching programs. The group began fundraising this fall, says program director Jenn Bock, a Guelph zoology and geography grad.

“We want to share our passion and excitement,” she says. She’s also involved with Nature in the Neighbourhood run through the Guelph-based Gosling Foundation and with Nature Guelph, a field naturalist club based on campus.

Wild Ontario began on campus in the 1980s as a rehabilitation program for injured birds. Today’s program runs under the aegis of the Department of Animal and Poultry Science.

The birds have come from rehab facilities in Canada. Because of their former injuries, they’re unable to be returned to the wild.

Besides colour training, volunteers play enrichment “games” with the crows, including a version of hide and seek with objects, says Lyttle. Unlike the dispassionate raptors in the aviary, she says, the crows recognize and interact with their human handlers.

“It’s really cool,” says Lyttle. “They’re a lot of fun.”