The Dutch company Crowded Cities are planning to use crows to help ease waste created by cigarette smokers.

Crows are highly intelligent animals. In regards to problem-solving abilities, many researchers claim they have the same capabilities as a toddler. Their memory is also extremely impressive — they are known to pass down ideas and even human identities from generation to generation.

However, crows aren’t just highly intelligent black carrion birds who happen to love shiny things and remember human faces.

Now, humans are leveraging these intelligent corvids for the better of other humankind.

What does the Crowded Cities project entail and how will they employ these birds in cleaning up cigarette butts?

For Those who Don’t Believe Crows are Intelligent

The video above illustrates how intelligent crows actually are. In fact, we can train them to perform various tasks through positive reinforcement — just like humans.

The problem-solving test is complicated with several parts to the test. After successfully completing eight steps, the bird gets a tasty, meaty reward. To be fair, this crow has seen all the steps individually, but never together in this arrangement.

As the crow progresses through the test, he slowly learns how the pieces of this puzzle all fit together. He eventually completes the test and gets his reward — completing a world’s first record for this kind of problem-solving test for crows.

This is where the CrowBox open source project comes into play.

A Training Program to put Corvids to use

The CrowBox came about when people wanted to start training corvids to use a “vending machine”. As designed by Joshua Klein, the box/machine has stages in order to ease birds into the “training”.

  • First Phase: an ordinary bird feeder with an opening for food
  • Second Phase: birds perching trigger the opening and allow them to get food
  • Third Phase: birds must deposit readily available coins into the machine to open the door
  • Fourth Phase: the door doesn’t open until a bird deposits coins it finds in the wild

This seems a bit exploitative, but others have gotten birds to do the same things with crushed soda cans and other items. And yes — the first video in this article is from the same people who developed the CrowBox.

Klein elaborates that all corvids — including jays and magpies — are trainable.

Klein and his team do have loftier goals for their training box such as using birds for trash pick up, material sorting, and even search and rescue.

So it’s no surprise that the founders at Crowded Cities took notice.

image of how crows would use the CrowBox for article Crowded Cities Wants to use Crows to Murder Cigarette Littering
This graphic shows how crows would deposit butts | Crowded Cities via Design Boom

Yet Unfunded, but Hopeful Moving Forward

Americans for Nonsmokers’ Rights says that humans create 1.69 billion pounds of cigarette waste each year with butts comprising the most common type of litter in general.

98% of cigarette filters are also made of plastic fibers. Given Earth’s growing trash problem, it behooves us to explore solutions such as bioplastics or otherwise.

While some other solutions exist such as cigarette waste-made roads, not all of them are elegant, efficient, or cost-effective.

Startup founders Bob Spikman and Ruben van der Vleuten first thought that robots might be the answer to the cigarette waste problem. In fact, crows weren’t even their first guess in the realm of birds.

First we thought of pigeons which would have been great because there are so many of them in cities…” Ruben told The Next Web. But pigeons haven’t displayed the intelligence and trainability that crows and other corvids have.

With the help of the CrowBox, Crowded Cities might be able to focus that energy for the betterment of mankind. Of course, questions about the ethical treatment of the animals do pop up. But Spikman says that they have thought of this.

…we still need to do extensive research on this, because if the effects are found out to be bad for crows we have to look for another solution.” Ultimately, the company wants humans to be more responsible for their own waste, so we don’t have to train birds to help us.

Details remain hazy as the startup still needs to raise funding for the project. We will keep an eye on it and update you with future articles.

Do you think its ethical to train animals to clean up remnants of known carcinogenic items used by humans?

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