Table of Contents
This article describes the four training phases of the CrowBox, together they make up a training program designed to automatically teach corvids how to use the CrowBox. This instruction takes place over four incremental training ‘phases’, each phase having slightly different rules than the one before. The human operator decides when the local corvids are comfortable enough to move from one phase of training to the next.
Later we will also discuss how to decide when it’s time to move between training phases. The goal of the project at this point is to determine the most effective means of training a wide variety of corvid communities using the CrowBox. This isn't possible without a supply of training data, so please be sure to share your observations on the CrowBox Google Group.
It should be possible to modify a CrowBox to automatically manage the four phases of training such that corvids can be fully trained with no human intervention, but not until more data is collected. Such a CrowBox would also require a steady power source and presumably a larger capacity for food and training coins.
Corvids and the training process
As we said, the CrowBox’s human operator must decide when to move from a current training phase to the next phase. To know when to do this, you will observe and interpret the behaviors of the corvids that are visiting the CrowBox.
There are two major corvid behavioral states that we are interested in: comfort and anxiety. Corvids are naturally both curious and suspicious, so they will approach any new situation with a high degree of uncertainty and will exhibit behaviors we describe as “anxiety.”
Most new customers (corvids) visiting a CrowBox will appear anxious at first. A few of the obvious anxiety indicators we have observed and used to judge training progress include:
- Constant squawking/screeching or otherwise making a lot of noise on or near the CrowBox
- Short, very quick bursts of movement on and around the CrowBox
- Spending a lot of time near the CrowBox before finally attempting to land on it
- Landing on the CrowBox then immediately taking off again without taking food
- Scratching, pecking or tugging directly on any part of the CrowBox
- Flying away from the CrowBox immediately after selecting a piece of food
Once corvids begin to grow comfortable interacting with the CrowBox, these anxious behaviors generally fade and are slowly replaced by behaviors which indicate comfort and familiarity. It’s important to tell the difference between corvids which are no longer anxious and those who have become truly comfortable using the CrowBox- “Comfortable” behaviors provide a positive indication of when it’s time to move to the next phase of training. Some behaviors which clearly indicate comfort include:
- Landing on the CrowBox immediately (or very soon) after arriving in the area
- Waiting in line (or in a group) for a chance to use the CrowBox
- Standing or loitering directly upon the CrowBox
- Digging in the food basket instead of quickly taking one reward off the top of the heap
- Taking time to carefully select which piece(s) of food to take (a)
- Visiting the CrowBox to collect food several times, back-to-back (b)
(a)We call this behavior “value judgement” and with in-the-shell peanuts, corvids may be seen performing a ritual of picking up and weighing several individual peanuts to find the best (presumably heaviest) one. This is a very reliable indicator of ‘comfortable’ behavior that is quite obvious when you see it, so keep an eye out! Corvids judging peanuts will pick one up, tilt their head back to weigh it, then put it down and pick up another, and on and on until finally selecting one or more peanuts to take. We've observed this behavior to be especially common among Steller’s Jays.
(b)Visits don’t count towards comfort if the corvid leaves without taking any food!
As we’ve discussed, corvids are extremely clever and suspicious, so they will notice when the CrowBox changes in appearance or behavior. This means that each time you advance to the next training phase, some of the corvids’ anxious behaviors will likely return in response to changes in the CrowBox behavior. This is expected! The corvids will grow more comfortable again once they come to understand the changes.
Phase One: Discovery and free feeding
The first phase of training serves to help corvids discover the CrowBox and learn to regard it as a safe and reliable source of food. Once some local corvids add your location to their foraging route, they will return from time to time, looking for food. The CrowBox provides free food during this time, ensuring that corvids that visit will form a strong connection to the CrowBox as a food source.
In training phase one, the CrowBox sits with the reward basket open. This means that food is highly visible to foraging corvids, and makes getting food from the CrowBox safe and simple. The CrowBox doesn’t really do anything in this phase except hold food for the corvids to take. Giving the corvids a safe and quiet place to get food is a great way to help corvids develop a positive attitude towards the CrowBox. Note that even ambient changes at any stage, even this one, can cause corvids to revert to anxious behavior - this includes moving the box, changing its color, or putting new objects near it.
Phase Two: Introduction to sound and motion
The CrowBox is ultimately designed to accept coins and in turn provide food access to the birds who deliver coins. Using a motor to open and close the reward basket means that the CrowBox will produce a bit of sound and vibration as birds interact with it. This is something that the corvids must get used to, but they may not have the patience to do so unless they are already convinced that the CrowBox is a good source of food, which is taught during Phase One of training. Phase Two is designed to introduce visiting birds to the sound and motion of normal CrowBox operation while still providing free food.
In training phase two, the CrowBox sits with the reward basket closed, offering visiting corvids no immediate access to food. The reward basket opens immediately when a visiting bird lands or steps on the perch platform atop the CrowBox, allowing access to food.
Phase two is similar to phase one training in that birds are not required to deliver coins in order to receive food; Instead, they learn that stepping on the perch will open the reward basket. At first this reaction will startle the corvids away from the CrowBox, but they usually quickly return and fast become accustomed to waiting atop the CrowBox as the reward basket opens, in spite of the sound and motion generated by the sliding lid.
Phase Three: Intro to Coin handling
This critical training phase introduces coins to the corvids and establishes the relationship between depositing a coin and receiving access to the food reward.
In this training phase the CrowBox sits with the reward basket closed, and with a couple of training coins on the basket’s lid. These ‘training coins’ are dispensed by the CrowBox itself and are intentionally placed on top of the reward basket.
Birds can no longer open the reward basket by landing or stepping on the perch. Now the only way for corvids to trigger a reward is for them to deposit one of the provided training coins.
Corvids will fiddle with the training coins in this phase because coins on the lid of the reward basket are perceived by corvids to be “in the way” of the food. By virtue of instinct, corvids will often try to move training coins away from the food and eventually, one of those birds will make an accidental deposit of a coin into the CrowBox and gain access to the food. Once corvids get the idea that the coins are related in some way to receiving food, they tend to quickly narrow down the concept of depositing a coin, and become rather precise at doing so.
Note: The move to phase three can be frustrating to corvids who are used to the rules of phase two and all of that free food. This is normal and should be expected. If they give up on phase three (stop coming to the CrowBox altogether) then back up to training phase one until they return, then bring them quickly back up to phase three to try again. Otherwise, just give them time to figure out what to do with those training coins! This is the trickiest part of the process, and also where we have seen the greatest variability of corvid behavior. There is no rulebook for this - figuring out how to surmount this stage reliably is the point of the current iteration of the CrowBox!
Phase Four: Food for coins
Training is over! Corvids may bring any coins they find and deposit them in a CrowBox to receive a food reward.
The only difference between training phase three and phase four is that phase four no longer dispenses training coins, otherwise the rules are the same- deposit a coin to receive a food reward. This requires corvids to locate coins elsewhere and transport them to the CrowBox. Note that some birds may “forget” to use the box if they perceive obtaining coins to be too difficult; we don’t know how they reason out how much work is too much to go through for a peanut. To this end, it can be useful to leave coins at different distances from the box to get confirmation that the birds are seeking and using them.