Sunday, June 17, 2012


Bird brained idea

by Larry Geller

It’s Sunday, so your blogger is entitled to take the day off. But first, this, from the Star-Advertiser breaking news this morning:

NEW YORK >> For more than five decades, the Chinatown Fair arcade attracted a steady stream of visitors, some drawn to its dim, dank and narrow battlefield of wall-to-wall Japanese street-fighter games, and others lured by a more peculiar attraction: a succession of chickens that took on all comers at tick-tack-toe, a few quarters at a time.

The chickens always went first. They seldom, if ever, lost.

[Star-Advertiser (NY Times), Chinatown fair is back, without chickens playing tick-tack-toe, 6/17/2012]

Chickens playing tic-tac-toe?? They can learn to do that??

My first thought is how come chickens here don’t play tic-tac-toe in our Chinatown. But nevermind.

The article reminded me of a bird-brained idea that I had about a dozen  or 15 years ago that I didn’t know how to complete. Here it is. Maybe someone out there knows how to do this.

At the time, I was regularly visiting Kapiolani Park in the wee hours of the morning, before the sun came up in winter. I would run around the park, then join with the San Souci Litter Patrol to pick up cigarette butts from the beach as I cooled down, and finally, a swim out to the windsock before heading home for breakfast and to start the day. Yes!

We used to grumble while cleaning as the tourists came out to the beach with their soda cans and cigarettes, burying these things in the sand when they were done with them, as though we were servants to pick up after them. Why were we cleaning the beach for them, and then they turn and litter it up?

Most mornings our only companions were some guys fishing (in season), and pigeons following us in case we might unearth a cookie or some Fritos which they would then compete for.

So—here it comes—I had the idea that we were working hard, and the pigeons were basically idle all day, bumming for food. Why couldn’t we enlist the pigeons to help clean the beach? These days we’d call it “job creation.”

I sketched out a gizmo that would dispense some millet seeds into a little cup when a cigarette butt is dropped in the top. The first version would be manually operated, with later versions fully automatic if the idea worked.

I had visions of a small army of pigeons spreading out over the sand in search of butts to exchange for nutritious seeds from the dispenser. And if the dispenser were installed over a trash can, it would be self-cleaning.

To make it work, of course, I would have to train some pigeons. And I hadn’t a clue about how to do that. So after a little research on the phone (there was no Google then), I exchanged emails with a professor on the Mainland who was a bird behavior specialist. He ventured that it could be done, and gave me some pointers.

So I set out to try it. Here’s the methodology.

I had a bag of millet from Kokua Market, probably organic. There was to be no abuse of my experimental subjects. I took the bag and a little dish to the beach.

First thing was to identify the alpha male, since I wasn’t going to keep a bird in captivity (that is, take one home). The alpha male would be the one that came over each morning when I showed up, and chased away all the others. The idea was that this way, I would be training the same bird each time.

So I put out some seeds and the birds sorted themselves out. Sure enough, one bird managed to chase away the others. It was a small plate, by design, and that bird, seeing a good deal for himself, got all the seeds. And he came back day after day, when I showed up at about the same time.

So next, I put some butts into the plate along with the seeds. The bird pecked at them but ignored them. Then I put the butts outside the plate but close enough that pecking might flip one into the plate. When that happened, I gave the bird some seeds. It didn’t happen very often, though.  So I rigged a little trough and put it on a slant, full of butts, so that all the bird had to do was touch a butt and it would fall into the plate and I would give some seeds.

Should work, right? It didn’t. Although I envisioned this bird bringing me litter first from nearby and later from all across the beach, this bird didn’t catch on. More likely, I didn’t know what I was doing. And this one bird now chased away any other pupils I might have hoped for.

No one interfered with my experiment. Once a cop came by and asked what I was doing, so I told him. Saying nothing, he just went away. I supposed that he must meet people doing idiot things like this every day.

Eventually I gave up.

But hey, if chickens can play and win at tic-tac-toe, can’t pigeons be recruited to pick up litter? Imagine—the streets of Paris could finally be cleaned up, pigeons could be employed this way around the world.

All it would take would be someone who knows how to train birds.

Are you that person?


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