A Swedish father and son duo have made headlines this week for their impressive homemade device which rewards their local magpies for collecting litter. This trash collection method involves a bird feeder with a release mechanism which is triggered by depositing trash. Amazingly, this device has been mastered by the magpies who, in over 5,000 interactions, have never attempted to trick the machine with any other object but litter.
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How are magpies smart enough to accomplish this feat? The answer lies in their belonging to a particular group of birds known as corvids. Corvidae is the family to which crows, magpies, ravens, jays, and jackdaws belong. Among corvids, there are some seriously heavy-hitters intelligence-wise. The New Caledonian Crow, for example, is thought to be one of the smartest animals alive due to its complex tool use which is rivaled only by the great apes.
With such a pedigree, it is much easier to understand how a magpie could be trained to recognize the cause and effect involved in a trash-for-treats device such as this one. But if such training is possible with wild corvids such as these, why isn’t this being done on a much larger scale?
The answer, in fact, is that efforts are being made to turn wild corvid populations into litter reducing armies. The Swedish city of Sodartalje is currently testing a pilot program involving wild crows. This program, entitled “Corvid Cleaning,” is being run by the Keep Sweden Tidy Foundation. In this case, crows are being deployed to retrieve cigarette butts in return for food.
Corvid Cleaning is not the first such program, however it seems that no effort to use trained corvids for this purpose has ever fully panned out. A Dutch company attempted to initiate such a program in 2017, but the program would be brought to a halt in 2018 due to funding issues and concerns over the potential long-term effects of consistent cigarette exposure upon the crows involved.
A Vision of the Future
So, why have none of these corvid training programs stuck, and what does this mean for those who dream of a future in which birds are the frontline for litter? To answer this, we must first determine whether we’re even asking the correct questions. Is it possible that corvids could be used to reduce litter in urban and suburban settings across the world? The various programs and experiments in this area have proven, at least, that these birds can be trained for this purpose. What cannot be said with equal certainty is whether it is wise to remove responsibility from the humans discarding trash onto the wildlife who suffer from it.
As interest in sustainability, coexistence with nature, and concepts like “ecocities,” grow in popularity, new ethical concerns and questions sprout up with increasing frequency. In the case of the cleaning crows, this results in a balancing act between innovation and responsibility. If we are responsible for our green spaces, then it is our responsibility to keep them clean. Does this really include delegating such responsibilities to the local wildlife?
Regardless of whether “Corvid Cleaning” or any programs like it are able to take off, the potential for a future of cooperation with nature itself is legitimate. In order to achieve this, however, we must begin by examining why birds can be trusted to pick up litter when humans apparently cannot.
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