My new favourite word is synanthropy - the study and practice of creating symbiotic relationships between people and animals.
I came across it thanks to the ever-giving Metafilter group blog, a pretty fine palace of symbiosis n its own right. It pointed me at A Vending Machine For Crows, a project by polymath techie Joshua Klein that aims to put some of the hundreds of millions of dropped coins back in circulation.
It does this by training crows to realise that if they find coins and take them to the machine, they'll get food. Crows, and corvids in general, are my favourite birds; they're impressively intelligent, communicative, fast to learn and innovative when problem solving. They also like shiny things: really, what's not to love?
The benefits of this idea are manifold. Klein posits that if you can get a few crows trained, then the idea will spread naturally throughout the population - and that means that mostly, human intervention can be restricted to seeding the idea and then leaving enough machines around. That makes it very economical - especially if the crows remain unaware of the true market value of the coinage they find. Although I'm sure that economics will take over if the idea catches on; if it's profitable for the machine operators, then rival devices will appear offering better deals and a wider range of treats - and I do hope crows really are partial to ice cream. Is it perhaps entirely smart to introduce intelligent non-humans into our economy?
Perhaps the most exciting long-term potential for the Crow Vending Machine is that humans will lose a bit more of that apartness when it comes to other animals, and learn to think in symbiotic terms. That can only be advantageous; currently, our attempts to game the world's ecosystems are clumsy and full of ill thought out missteps. Co-option is better than control.
Meanwhile, watch yourself when you're counting out change for that lunchtime sandwich at the pavement cafe. If this catches on, avian mugging will spread from the seagulls in no time flat.