Trading Bird Food For Cigarette Butts

Positive reinforcement is the process of getting someone to understand their actions result in a reward. Children get a sweet treat when they pick up all their toys and older ones might get some cash for mowing the lawn. From the perspective of the treat-giver, this is like turning treats into work. A Dutch startup wants to teach the crow population to pick up cigarette butts in exchange for bird treats.

The whole Corvidae family of birds is highly intelligent so it shouldn’t be a problem training them that they will get a reward for depositing something the Hominidae family regularly throw on the street where the birds live. This idea is in turn an evolution of the open-source Crow Box.

For some, leveraging the intelligence of animals is more appealing than programming drones which could do the same thing. A vision system mixed with a drone and a manipulator could fulfull the same function but animals are self-repairing and autonomous without our code. The irony of this project is that, although it’s probably fairly easy to train crows to recognize cigarette butts, the implementation hinges on having a vision system that can recognize the butts in order to properly train the crows in the first place.

If we had the time to train crows, it would definitely be to poop on cars that don’t signal for turns. Maybe some of these winged devices can be programmed to recognize lapses in traffic laws in exchange for some electrons.

Thank you, [jo_elektro], for the tip.


98 thoughts on “Trading Bird Food For Cigarette Butts

        1. Humans are much easier to train, it’s just having the will to do the training that’s hard. It seems exploitative or demeaning to offer simple rewards for doing simple things.
          When I lived in Germany I saw the effect of their recycling scheme: at the time of purchase you pay a little more for a bottle of coke (for example) but when you’re finished with the bottle you can take it to an automatic machine and get back some money. It means the bottles can be washed and reused, it also means the bottles are better quality than the disposable ones.

          1. Of course, if we’re talking about training humans w.r.t. tobacco on a societal level, the best would be to get people to stop using it altogether. Then we could use all that farmland for useful things like food, rather than addictive poison.

          2. It’s called a bottle deposit It’s been done for like 30 years in the states of Maine, Vermont, Massachusetts, New York Hawaii and Iowa for five cents, Oregon and Michigan have ten cent deposits, I’m told there is even an episode of Seinfeld where Kramer tries to smuggle New York cans into Michigan for the better deposit.
            Now I can’t speak about Germany but in the states that tiny deposit just means that the homeless do a big part of the roadside cleaning for you.
            Also the aluminum cans and plastic bottles are all crushed by the machine and recycled not reused and the glass bottles just land on top of each other and smash.

          3. 50 years ago my main source of income as a child in rural Arkansas was picking up pop bottles on the side of the road. We got 2-3 cents per bottle. A friend and I used a long stick and a burlap sack to haul the load. Sometimes we’d get almost $3/mile. Of course, the farther we went the farther we’d have to carry them back.

          4. In Germany politicians made the error to listen to lobbyists when drafting the bottle deposit law.
            That’s why we have 8 cents for 0.33 and 0.5 liter beer bottles that are reused, 15 cents for bigger glass bottles and those hard coke bottles that are reused, 25 cents for cans and some PET bottles (f.ex water) that are not reused and finally 0 cents for glass bottles and some (f.ex. juice) PET bottles that are not reused. The 25 cent PET bottles are the ones that are shreddered by the machines in the shops.

            I don’t mind about having different deposits per bottle type, but I would prefer not having to read what is printed on the bottle to know if I should bring it back to the shop or dispose of it in the trash.

          5. Eons ago, back during a time called “the 60’s” cold drinks, depending on where you lived this was referred to as “Coke” or “Pop” or “RC” and various others, were sold in reusable glass bottles. The bottles had a nominal value of $.02 USD (that;s 2 cents). Now while that is insignificant today, in those days it was 20% of the price of a bottle! So if you collected 6 empty bottles you could trade them in at the corner store for a cold drink! You needed 6 because the pop was $.10 but you had deposit on the new bottle so 6. And a random thought, did anyone notice that the cent sign is no longer available? Strange.

      1. THIS!

        What a totally stupid idea, people will become even more lazy and “i don’t care”. If i can throw my cigarette butt on the ground why can’t i do the same with my empty cola can, the birds will pick it up won’t they?
        Seriously, if you want to train birds train them to poop on people that throws they cigarette butts (and other dirt) on the ground!

        Also i’m a bit worried about the health of the birds too.

        1. Lol Crows pick up all kinds of garbage. They especially like shiny things. Why not have them peck out children’s eyeballs for leaving juicebox straw wrappers everywhere?


          The cobra effect occurs when an attempted solution to a problem makes the problem worse, as a type of unintended consequence. The term is used to illustrate the causes of incorrect stimulation in economy and politics.

          The term cobra effect originated in an anecdote set at the time of British rule of colonial India. The British government was concerned about the number of venomous cobra snakes in Delhi. The government therefore offered bounty for every dead cobra. Initially this was a successful strategy as large numbers of snakes were killed for the reward. Eventually, however, enterprising people began to breed cobras for the income. When the government became aware of this, the reward program was scrapped, causing the cobra breeders to set the now-worthless snakes free. As a result, the wild cobra population further increased. The apparent solution for the problem made the situation even worse.

          Rat effect

          A similar incident occurred in Hanoi, Vietnam, under French colonial rule. The colonial regime created a bounty program that paid a reward for each rat killed. To obtain the bounty, people would provide the severed rat tail. Colonial officials, however, began noticing rats in Hanoi with no tails. The Vietnamese rat catchers would capture rats, lop off their tails, and then release them back into the sewers so that they could procreate and produce more rats, thereby increasing the rat catchers’ revenue. Historian Michael Vann argues that the cobra example from British India cannot be proven, but that the rats in Vietnam case can be proven, so the term could be changed to the “rat effect”.

          1. Similarly, I was wondering if one could “participate” in no-questions-asked gun buy-back programs that pay well. Make a cheap rifle that barely works for $100 and sell it to the program for $200 and then go make more.

      2. > How about training humans to pick up their f*** nasty cigarette butts themselves…

        I asked one someday and got the answer “cleaning the roads is part of my paid taxes so I may do this””…

        I wished to have a full stomach to throw up on his shoes but unluckily that didn’t work.

          1. That’ll be a good idea:
            ” Yo bruv! Av u erd, dem govment not chattin breeze now! kikin out dem fag butts to dem crows are bangin good ting! Init Bruv!”

            Just tell people to flick out more fags and the crows will ‘av-em!
            Litter to feed birds!
            Problem solved.

      3. That would mean providing receptacles for them, which is non PC now. Kinda funny they’ll give crows ashtrays to collect butts into before they’ll install more public “butt stops”…. kinda the same for public garbage/recycling too, used to be you never had to carry garbage more than a couple of blocks most cities/large towns, now all the public waste receptacles are disappearing also.

          1. Nice idea, it’s hard to stop them smelling though. Those ppl who start theatrically coughing their heads off when they see a smoker 300 yards away downwind will throw fits smelling fresh butts indoors.

        1. It’s called “Carry-in Carry-out”. It saves millions in Tax money a year.

          Just because you like to eat your disposable fast food lunch in the park every day, doesn’t mean I need to pay the garbage men to keep the barrel empty, clean, and in good working order every week.

          Just Haul your shit out, or better yet, use less shit.

      1. No problem. Smoking is an unhealthy and quite useless habit. Of course in the long run the trained crows will eliminate their source of “money” this way, if they discourage enough people from smoking in public places. But I doubt, that they are intelligent enough to recognize this. Or the addicted smokers will immediately replace the stolen cigarette with a new one :-)

        1. Lol, Liked how you worded that one… These days, I wonder if the average human intelligence is a thing anymore… I’ve seen qualified idiots and unqualified geniuses (Not of the meme variety).
          I can count on one hand the amount of people who are both intelligent and qualified.

          That means in order to get around laws, the person who uses his brain would, say, repair a mains powered equipments’ PSU on the primary side…. The qualified electrical and electronics engineer who couldn’t operate a light-bulb would then sign the work as approved thus shifting the blame when a fire occurs!

      2. Yah, butts are annoying but that acrid, allergenic poison that stupid people like to blow around is a lot worse. It’s kind of tempting to try to build one of these things but to train it with full cigarettes rather than just the butts.

  1. I see two problems with this, people turn around and say ‘If I don’t drop butts, then the crows won’t get fed!’ and the fact the crows might find they LIKE butts…. after all there’s still tobacco and nicotine hanging around on them…

    Also, crow poop – after we’ve done so much in the UK to get rid of pigeons in the city centers, I’m surprised at the idea of someone attracting crows instead.

        1. Now now, let’s be kind. Most drinkers don’t just toss their empties on the ground. Besides, we’ve already taught other humans that there’s a reward for them in the form of a nickel just in case someone does. See? Positive reinforcement works wonders!

          Smokers on the other hand have come to believe in their right to ignore no smoking signs, stand up wind of people who are obviously gagging, and to toss their butts on the ground like so many smoldering, stinking cockroaches.

          And hey, drinkers don’t start wildfires with their empties.

          1. Yes they do, near the bottom…

            “Focusing of Sunlight. Glass fragments with lens properties and concave reflective metal objects can focus light rays into a small area, concentrating the heat from the sun. This concentrated heat can reach sufficient temperature to ignite the fuel it illuminates. Remnants of the focusing object may remain after the fire.”

            That’s glass bottles and the bottoms of cans.

          2. No drinkers just plow into minivans of people minding their own business and beat their spouses and children at a higher rate than non-drinkers. You dislike smokers, I dislike drinkers. Actually drinkers start plenty of fires themselves by getting drunk enough to behave inappropriately around fire, causing it to go outta control (hold my beer while I throw some gas on this fire) and also passing the heck out while the campfire hopefully burns out safely in the night. Mainly the first scenario, though. I do wish smokers were more responsible with their garbage, but I also wish the general public was too :( I think we can all tighten up.
            Also there are lots of kids that drink non-alcoholic beverages and toss junk on the ground. The pacific gyre could net seagulls millions in birdseed or stale parking lot french fries as they seem to prefer lol.

    1. The system could also be used to cull the bird population – just poison every third food pellet. Or chemically castrate them for a more SPCA friendly solution I suppose.

      Very interested to see the emergent effects of this, mostly just butts getting pinched before the smoker is finished.

  2. My city is full of crows. Would love to learn how this can be implemented and try an implementation in my own city. Kudos to the one who came up with the idea.

    As to the fact that crows may like them, i find that highly unlikely. The nicotine left in the butts is minuscule. Also, it’s not like crows will start a bad habit and buy more to sustain that habit. They will be conditioned to work with human waste and that’s it. And they will “quit” when there are no more butts. The amount of reward can be increased as pollution is decreased, so people won’t feel that they need to throw on the ground to help the birds.

    Crow poop already is an issue…might as well profit from it.

          1. IDK, the mean intelligence might be a bit lower, but I’ve had some really smart cats and really dumb cats, the one I have now is just on the right side of potato maybe. My previous old buddy was sharp as a tack though, had door handles figured out, played jokes on me.

    1. They don’t swoop over here in the UK…
      Instead, they try to befriend those who have given aid to them… Sometimes to the point they become stalkers. Though usually they don’t stray too far past their tribe/nesting-area.

      It is true when people say if you help a crow/magpie.. they’ll remember you for life!
      I saved a magpie from getting ran over after a crow KO’d the thing…. A few years later and I finally clock onto the behavior of the group. They wouldn’t frighten off when I cycle past and only one of them would rush to a tree or near ground as though as to try and see me. That extra-brave magpie even allowed me as close as a foot and a half near it.
      Recently, however… I saw said magpie get attacked by its own partner and some other newly partnered magpie, I’d guess some form of exile? Probably the exiled magpie was getting too obsessed with trying to follow its “hero” too far from the nest or something like that.

      Still have the occasional stand-n-watch from the remainders as I ride to work in the morning.

  3. I had an idea quite like this when I was a kid, except I wanted to train birds to collect coins, and paper money. I was inspired by Skinner, and the film the Birds… And didn’t consider training birds to do innocuous tasks like this.

    The only thing I worry about this is that some butts might be lit. Some birds might even take up smoking, and that’s not a joke as funny as it is…

    None-the-less, It is an exciting idea. Maybe a practical pigeon loo would mitigate their- ah, “negative impacts”.

    1. Still burning butts will be a problem if this really works, not that the device can’s extinguish every butt thrown into it, but crows picking up butts as soon as the drop will occasionally drop a burning cigarette somewhere else. Possible on a roof so it can roll down and light some dry leaves in the gutters.

      1. Add a thermal sensor and don’t reward the crow if the butt is hot. That would teach them to leave the hot/burning ones. Might stop crows attacking smokers to get their butts too (which unfortunately is a quite likely outcome nonetheless as crows will figure out they can douse burning butts in water before handing them in. They are clever enough to figure that out)

  4. What happens when there’s no more butts left? Wouldn’t they scavenge garbage dumps, rubbish heaps for more butts? Situation may escalate to a worse one. It would also hurt them, I think.

    1. Honestly, that’s pretty unlikely, though they are good problem solvers, so it’s very possible. But that being said, they’re also perfectly happy to get other food as it’s available, and so they wouldn’t be desperately seeking butts, either. Still, you could probably train them to collect other kinds of waste, too. Color code the garbage stations, and they’ll put it together very quickly.

  5. Crows are really intelligent, I see another problem: crows will start stealing unfinished cigarettes directly, from ashtrays, from unattended packets, and even directly from the mouths of the ones smoking – not that this would be a bad thing.
    Have you ever seen those videos of seagulls stealing ice cream from the hands of the people?

  6. An even better idea would be to train magpies to swoop and peck at the idiots who choose to ignore “no smoking” signs and smoke at bus and train stations and things even though the law in my area clearly says its illegal and fines can apply.

  7. Here’s a suggestion in payment for a question: please make this a fire-proof build. Because, if you’re successful, then the probability that a crow will discover a still burning butt and dump it in there with prior fuel is like 100%. Now my question (perhaps buried in the RTFLinks): how does one get the initial idea across to the corvids? Do you show them a puppet crow making the exchange? (they can learn by watching) or do you balance a butt on the edge and hope they tip it in out of curiosity?

    1. Design it in a way, that holds some water, e.g. let the rain water collecting on the roof of the device run into the butt-container. Give the container an overflow-drain to control the water level.

  8. Very nice idea but they won’t stick to cigarette butts unless you have a ‘puter up there to do video recognition and pay off only for cig butts. You’ll get rocks, acorns, gum wrappers, all sorts of stuff. Crows already like to steal and collect things all on their own, especially if shiny. Caches of jewelry, trinkets, etc., have been found that they’ve stolen and they’ll try trading anything and everything for bits of food.

    Folks try them as pets. Can be taught to speak. Birds though, even if your best and trusted buddy have a nasty habit of going right for your eyes. Best to just make friends with the local crows (feed them) and keep a few feet of distance. If you do try though, canned dog food is what they like to eat. Will attack owls on sight so hunters oft use dummy owl as bait, but crows know what rifles look like. Had a friend that tried with crows, racoons, squirrels etc.. as pets. Interesting but hazardous. Don’t bother trying a possum!

  9. If Tokyo wasn’t so clean already (and the Japanese so mindful not to litter), this would be perfect. They have so many crows and ravens in Japan – what a waste of workforce :-)

  10. Oddly enough, my concern is that Cigarette butts although thoroughly disgusting and totally artifical, already have a place in nature. YES NATURE.

    Some urban birds and rodents have begun intentionally incorporating butts into their nesting material because the trace chemicals ward off Ticks and Fleas.

    I can easily see a group of crows ransacking other birds’ nests for the butts just to get the reward. Secondarily, the added competition for butts on the street would mean less for nesting material in the first place. Which would mean larger populations of disease vectors.

    And here in the American North East, we now have the Lone Star tick, which can make you allergic to red meat! I would die without Steak and Potatoes! Not to mention Lyme disease, anaplasmosis, babesiosis and Powassan. Not to mention fleas which can bring you Plague, Typhus, and Tularemia.

    So if we do this, there will need to be some form of wildlife restoration – to recoup the loss of urban birds. Some form of increased disease mitigation – trapping of vectors, baiting/ providing of medications and medicated nesting material. And a larger public awareness campaign for the diseases.

  11. I recall reading a number of years ago about a man that did this very thing with crows…except he taught them to pick up loose change and exchange it for food. It was amazing to watch.

  12. It would be easier to train seagulls – they REALLY like a particular shade of blue (& some reds). look at their nest sites for evidence. it seems to be some inbuilt trophy hunter reflex. admitteldly we need to change the cigarette butt colour to blue tho..

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