Teaching Crows to Clean Up Cigarette Butts

Jack Caulfield
November 24th 2017

Cigarette butts are the most littered item on the planet. In any city, these tenacious plastic filters can be found everywhere, and can take up to a decade to decompose. But now, two Dutch designers have come up with a unique solution to the problem: they want to train crows to tidy up the filters for us.

The Crowbar

They call it the Crowbar, it is a device designed to train crows to collect cigarette butts around the city and deposit them at the Crowbar itself in return for a reward. The Crowbar consists of a lower compartment, where the cigarette filter can be placed by the crow, and a table onto which food is deposited as reward. A camera recognizes when a cigarette filter has been dropped off and triggers the food to be released automatically.

The startup behind the device, Crowded Cities, is the project of a duo of Dutch designers, Ruben van der Vleuten and Bob Spikman. They say that they arrived at the idea after observing crows to be very smart and savvy city navigators. Spikman and van der Vleuten aren't sure whether the crows using the Crowbar communicate with each other about the device, or if more crows simply discover it independently. But regardless, the crows seem to be on board.

Avian Ingenuity?

From a bird-chasing drone to a nest made of cigarettes, birds are increasingly having to adapt themselves to the impact of humans. But Crowded Cities' idea suggests not only that birds - especially crows - are getting very good at learning and adapting, but also that we can put this adaptability to our own uses. What else might these keen and clever crows be able to help us with? Only the future, and our imaginations, will decide.

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Siri Beerends: I really embrace the idea that viruses can teach us a lesson in modesty. It is necessary that our position as the dominant species on the planet is being challenged. I also agree that it is a mistake to think that we are becoming Gods. But unfortunately, this is actually what is happening now. Corona doesn’t teach us to be modest, it teaches us how we can -as quickly as possible- go back to business as usual: saving our capitalistic economy.

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