It’s no mystery that garbage is one of the most pervasive issues of our time. From oceanic microtrash to seeping landfills, people are trying to work out how to address the world’s garbage crisis with increasingly grand ideas. Corvids have long been associated with garbage, sometimes acting as agents of litter themselves, but one such idea asks if they might offer a solution.
A Swedish start up, Corvid Cleaning, is attempting to train corvids to pick up cigarette butts in exchange for food, as a means of combating the pervasive litter problem across their city. They plan do this through a machine that according to their website, they’ve already successfully ground tested with wild birds.
So, will this work and is it a good idea? In my opinion no and no, for many reasons. This whole idea rests on the premise that corvids are smart, (which they are,) but being smart and being motivated are very different. It’s not an issue of whether crows *can* learn it, but how you keep them engaged over time (the company hopes to save 75% of the city’s current cigarette clean-up costs). Having fed a lot of crows a lot of peanuts, I can tell you that the appeal of unlimited peanuts wanes drastically over time. While there might be an initial rash of participants, or at least a couple highly exuberant ones, there’s a serious question of meaningful sustainability without the introduction of a more desirable (and more expensive) food.
My skepticism here is born both from my experience with crows and the cold hard fact that this has simply never worked before. This isn’t the first time someone has tried this, but the 4th. The first was in 2008, when Joshua Klein delivered his infamous and highly misleading crow vending machine TED Talk. From there the Klein team debuted their Open Source idea for the Crow Box, a build it yourself machine that offered the chance to train wild crows to exchange found coins for food. While the no promises, DIY, community science nature of the project gets a more sound endorsement from me, to date, no one has had success with the final stage of the training process. The idea it seems, makes no cents. Next, in 2017, a Dutch start up called Crowded Cities pitched the exact same idea as Corvid Cleaning, though I assume their proprietary machine was a bit different. By December 2018 though, they tabled the idea, citing a lack of resources and an inability to, “get a clear picture of what the effects would be on crows and the environment.” That same year a French theme park, Puy du Fou, hired a falconer to train some captive rooks to pick up garbage as a stunt for the park. In that case it worked marvelously but of course the stakes are entirely different between wild and captive birds. And in between all those highly profiled efforts have most certainly been the odd successful backyard tinkerer. But what eventually plays out over and over again is that while wild crows can learn to do this, no one has ever been able to scale their success into something meaningful. And I don’t think they ever will.
For a moment though, let’s say that my skepticism here is invalidated; various corvids do consistently use the machine as intended. In fact, their intelligence and understanding of cause and effect renders them quite simply excellent at it. Without the appreciation for the purpose of their activities (cleaning up garbage) the project is liable to create two different kinds of cheaters: those that steal the food out from under the participants and those that resort to collecting their currency straight from the source, before it’s officially become garbage. I’m not sure how likely either of those two scenarios are, and in fact bearing that out is nearly worth keeping quiet and bagging this whole article simply to find out. But there remains at least one more point that compels me to keep going: I have never once seen a proponent of this idea fully tackle the very real health and safety issue at stake here.
At the smaller end of this question are the issues associated with the maintenance of the machine itself. How do they plan to keep pests and mildew out of the food hopper? Rats would be the most conspicuous problem, but it’s the smaller stuff that might prove the most challenging. In my own hard learned lesson on this, I’ll never forgive myself for infesting my sister’s kitchen with pantry months after leaving behind a forgotten bag of peanuts. And of course like any high calorie food, nuts are liable to spoil especially when unsealed and exposed to the environment. I don’t offer this in denial of the absolutely horrendous things I’ve seen crows gleefully eat, but if you are intentionally creating a crow cafeteria you have a higher obligation to the food you are serving. Especially if you offer on your website that, “Chances are pretty good that it’s possible to put the birds on a better diet and improve their overall health with this solution.”
Which brings us now to the most obvious issue: cigarettes are toxic. For example, direct ingestion of nicotine at a concentration of 0.054ml/kg causes rapid death in birds.1 While there’s no way a crow would ingest that much nicotine simply from handling a cigarette butt (even with its mouth), there’s urgent need to understand how repeated handling of cigarette filters might impact these wild animals. And truth be told, I have very little confidence that the people behind these butts for nuts ideas understand the challenges of executing that study, though I would welcome their inquiries.
Earlier I asked two questions: will this work and is it a good idea. I suspect that every iteration of person that has come up with this idea genuinely appreciates corvids for their intelligence, is concerned with the amount of litter created by people, and believes that they’ve hit on an idea that will solve a problem that needs solving. Where I think they go wrong, however, is condensing my question into a single query where whether or not it’s a good idea is simply an artifact of whether or not the idea works. It’s the Silicon Valley mindset applied to wildlife. Ian Malcom warned us against this, and here we are ignoring him yet again.
Which leads to me to what I think is the only good idea that might arise out of a machine that trades treats for garbage. Rather than exploiting wildlife, why not use the money and creativity being invested here to better train people? After all, humans like a good reward-based dopamine hit as much as the next animal. What’s the smallest amount of money that would encourage someone to dispose of their cigarette waste? That’s the start-up I’d rather see. Or better yet, pay people living wages to act as care takers for our communal spaces. Some problems don’t need a grand solution, they simply need our humanity.
- Ridpath MG, Thearle RJP, McCowan D, and Jones, F.J.S. 1960. Experiments on the value of stupefying and lethal substances in the control of harmful birds. Annals of Applied Biology 49: 77-101