CHICAGO — Are Chicago birds smarter than the ones in the suburbs?
Jesse Hacker, who's working on a master's degree at DePaul University, wants you to help him find out.
Hacker recently started a project that places puzzle boxes filled with food at various locations in the city and suburbs. To get the food out of the L-shaped box, birds or other animals must insert a token into a slot. Near each of the boxes, which are in suburban forest preserves and city rooftop decks, is a motion-activated trail camera.
Hacker wants to expand the project to more Chicago rooftop decks in neighborhoods throughout the city. Interested participants can email him at email@example.com.
"In urban areas, birds have to deal with a lot more stuff than birds in the suburbs," said Hacker, of Lakeview. "Birds in the city have to figure out different ways of getting food because there are more people and less habitat, so I'm hoping they might be able to figure out that a token means food. ... I am interested in seeing how urban and suburban birds differ in their willingness to interact with a novel feeding object, and whether or not certain species are better problem solvers than others."
Hacker, whose work is in collaboration with Lincoln Park Zoo's Urban Wildlife Institute and his faculty advisor at DePaul, Jalene LaMontagne, built the boxes himself with grants from DePaul and the Illinois Ornithological Society. The design is based on boxes constructed by Steve Joy, who documented crows dropping tokens into boxes to release food.
Hacker's project has yet to see any results, but he's hoping with more time and a larger sample size of boxes throughout Chicago, he'll see more feeding from birds, especially crows, grackles and even pigeons. The current city boxes are in Lakeview, Ukrainian Village and Irving Park, with two more in Lincoln Park, said Hacker, who visits them once or twice a week.
If birds don't visit the boxes in large numbers, Hacker said the project will veer toward documenting what animals visit them. Already, he said the boxes have been frequented by squirrels and raccoons, with many humans also showing curiosity.
"Anything we can learn about how we’re affecting animals' behavior can help us with conservation and urban planning," he said.
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