Crows trained to pick up cigarette butts on city streets in bid to fight litter

Sodertalje, in the south-west of Sweden, has introduced a pilot scheme, where crows receive a little food for every butt they deposit in a bespoke machine designed by a startup

A crow is trained to pick up cigarette butts in Taby, near Stockholm, Sweden

Crows are being recruited to pick up discarded cigarette butts from the streets of a Swedish city.

Sodertalje, in the south-west, near the capital Stockholm, has introduced a pilot scheme this spring, where the wild birds receive a little food for every butt they deposit in a bespoke machine designed by a startup.

“They are wild birds taking part on a voluntary basis,” said Christian Günther-Hanssen, the founder of Corvid Cleaning, the company behind the method.

“By teaching the crows to exchange butts for food, they can help clean our streets and squares,” he added.

Mr Gunther-Hanssen has spent months training the crows at a recycling center in Stockholm.

“Crows are basically the most intelligent wild animals that we have in Sweden, and probably in Britain, too,” he said. “They will understand the difference between some trash and a rock or a leaf, which they will not be rewarded for, obviously.”

The new pilot scheme aims to fight litter

The birds, he added, participate entirely voluntarily, meaning the scheme is “essentially a barter arrangement”.

According to the Keep Sweden Tidy Foundation, a billion cigarette butts are left on the country’s streets every year, with each estimated to cost as much as two kronor (16p) to pick up.

Christian Gunther-Hanssen believes that his crows could do the job for a tenth of that price, slashing litter collection bills for councils.

With an estimated million crows, rooks, jackdaws and magpies in Sweden, he believes there is no shortage of potential collectors.

The crows do not need any human input to learn to use the device, but teaching them takes about two months and involves moving the machine through several different settings.

It first needs to be set to give free peanuts, then peanuts in return for an object, before the final stage of peanuts in exchange for cigarette butts.

“Crows learn from each other, so once the first birds learn it at one location, the other birds at that location will copy the first ones,” Mr Gunther-Hanssen said.

He now intends to study what impact a diet of peanuts has on the crows,
after which he is considering developing a reward that will be good for them as well as tasty.

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