Can crows be trained to collect cigarette butts?

Crows are certainly clever creatures, with a history of bringing girls gifts, understanding analogies and using tools, some scientists they believe their intelligence may even rival that of apes. So could we employ these brainy birds to help keep our streets clean? That's the idea behind a project from Dutch startup Crowded Cities, which is looking to train crows to scoop up the butts in exchange for treats.

Cigarette butts are a problem everywhere, but the primary focus of Holland's Crowded Cities' is its motherland, where it says six billion are dropped on streets every year. And clever crows could be just the folks for the job, with the team crafting a win-win system whereby the birds roam cities on the lookout for discarded butts and receive something in return for their troubles.

That's the idea, anyway, and the approach isn't as crazy as it sounds. Part of the team's inspiration is the work of American technologist Joshua Klein, whose 2008 Ted Talk described a crow vending machine that trained the birds to collect coins and exchange them for peanuts.

Crowded Cities uses a similar approach. It is developing a device called a Crowbar, which is basically a feeding mechanism for birds. They first bring a cigarette butt to the Crowbar and drop it into a funnel. A camera then confirms that the item is in fact a butt and the system spits out a little food onto a platform, repaying the crow for its efforts and kicking off what is hoped to be a fruitful relationship.

The Crowbar device under development

Building the system and then actually training the crows to use it are of course different things, but with 98 percent of cigarette butts made up of plastic fibers and taking up to 10 years to decompose, it is certainly a neat idea. Crowded Cities says all the components of its Crowbar system are functioning and, once assembled, it will start testing it with crows.

Source: Crowded Cities

  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • Flipboard
  • LinkedIn
I was going to say "well if we can't even teach smokers". But then again...
So other species now have to work to clean up the dirty habits of humans? This will just give these dirtbag smokers an excuse to flick their butts into the street instead of binning them. The better solution is to simply ban smoking, give smokers 2 years to kick the habit and then make it illegal.
A great idea ! The issue is to teach the crows. If some are teached, they will surely show it to other crows.
Giolli Joker
Crows are smart. They'll start snatching cigarettes directly from smokers hands... it could be quite fun.
@Spod,<br/>Banning cigarettes would just drive smoking underground. Prohibition showed that by banning something the people want, you hand over the production and distribution to criminals. And if you think that factory made cigarettes contain nasty compounds, imagine what criminally produced ones would be cut with... In the UK, unscrupulous shopkeepers already stock counterfeit cigarettes, due to the fact that they are extremely heavily taxed here- and need to be- as our health service is free at the point of delivery, and smoking causes many health issues.<br/>More generally, my concern about using birds to pick up butts is that they contain the filter element- ie they contain more nasty carcinogens than the actual cigarette smoke. So for birds to handle them in their beaks, then immediately afterwards ingesting food through their beaks, could expose them to all sorts of nasties.
Brian M
@bergamot69 perhaps not ban, but make it illegal to smoke in a public space, including streets, countryside etc. So no criminal opportunity.
I noticed out west a few years ago that ravens would come and clean all the bugs off the front of my car.
Rustin Lee Haase
This article sure brings out the Antismoking-Nazis. The funny thing is that it is pure conditioning. See somthing about smoking --> hate builds up --> gotta do something --> make a hateful post to relieve the "pressure" --> feel a little bit better for "acting". Positive feedback. More such activity in the future. The crows are smarter. At least they get food.
Careless smokers have caused more death and destruction on this planet than Hitler, Papa Doc and Idi Amin combined. Why not find a way to shame them into cleaning up after themselves?
Yeah, you have a much better chance of training the crows to pick up the butts than you do training smokers not to toss them in the first place. It's bad enough they don't respect their own bodies. They don't respect the environment or their fellow man.