Crows Trade Cigarettes For Food

Over in the Swedish city of Södertälje, about 30 km southwest of Stockholm, a pilot program is being explored which will enlist crows to clean up discarded cigarette butts. Butts account for over 60% of litter in Sweden, and the per-butt cleanup cost falls between 0.8 and 2 Swedish kronor each. The company behind the project, Corvid Cleaning, estimates the cost will be around 0.2 kronor. If the birds picked up all the butts, that would be a substantial savings, but in reality, the current manual cleaning will still be needed. Total savings to the city will depend on the ratio of bird-collected vs. people-collected butts. Of course, if people would throw their butts in ashcans or carry pocket ashtrays like those popular in Japan, this would be a non-starter.

Crows were selected because they are considered one of the most intelligent bird — they’re easy to teach, and they communicate with each other. All crows participating in the project are volunteers, and are paid by the butt with a morsel of food dispensed from a machine. We’re reminded of B. F. Skinner’s pigeon-guided missile projects from the 40s and 50s, although cleaning up litter for food should result in a happier outcome for all parties concerned.

This kind of project has been tried before, for example, in a French park back in 2018. And we covered a 2020 project by [Hans] who was training magpies to do similar duty. Are you aware of any of these projects that went past the pilot phase and are in operation? Let us know in the comments below.

45 thoughts on “Crows Trade Cigarettes For Food

  1. Stopping smoking (or even switching to vaping) would also reduce cigarette butt litter… just saying…

    But seriously, good project, hope it takes off and that the crows aren’t affected by the nicotine or tar in the Butts they collect. Would love to know if any of these projects have worked long-term.

    1. Haven’t even seen many people smoking in Sweden compared to Finland – because Sweden is snus country. Still, the portion snus “teabags” are littering but they are relatively fast degrading. And loose baking-snus is only biomass.

  2. Except for Hans I haven’t seen any of these produce results. I think Hand’s approach encouraging accidental bottle cap drops flattens the learning curve for the magpies.

    I think the designs like the Bird Box or Crow Box would be great for already conditioned birds but don’t really have a learning angle for them.

    I’m really interested in the dispensing mechanism. I have a similar project in the works for the crows, jackdaws and magpies in Voldelpark and tried many designs that all eventually ground up peanuts and came to the same conclusion as Hans, using a vibration feeder, to avoid this.

  3. This is all well and good until the smoking generation dies off. Then you get huge flocks of angry crows suffering nicotine withdrawal. It’ll be worse than that Hitchcock movie.

    1. Well, if the reward is proportional to size of the butt (bigger butt == bigger reward), crows might not wait for people to finish their cigarettes before swooping in for the clean up. This could help people live healthier and cleaner lives, imagine being stuck in a real life Hitchcock movie, which won’t end until you quit smoking.

  4. Neither your image or the image in the article displays a Swedish crow… I think you show a raven, and the article what we call a “Råka” which is not the same as a “kråka”!

      1. Actually that’s not how it works. Smokers die relatively young, before they can consume much in the way of health care resources. We actually save money on people who die from lung cancer and emphysema. If the government wanted to save health care dollars, they would encourage more smoking.

        1. That’s a myth perpetuated in a report commissioned by the tobacco industry. Smokers die relatively young, usually after having used considerable healthcare resources in a slow and agonizing death and having reduced their effectiveness in the workplace, meaning they have produced comparatively few resources before putting the strain on “the system” and croaking. Someone who lives to 80 in OK-ish health usually has spend at least 40 to 50 of those years being productive and only then starts being “a drain”.

  5. Wouldn’t that have an effect on the food web/ chain? Crows not fending for themselves as would naturally be expected and instead collecting cigarette butts for machine dispensed peanuts?

    1. If it’s urban enough an environment for a project like this to be effective I bet those crows left a large part of their natural routine for something human oriented anyway. Probably picking stuff out of trash.

  6. A colleague has a “pet” crow, at the office. He feeds it every day. Right now there is a storm so the crow is probably hiding somewhere, but normally, even in the rain, my colleague goes outside to eat lunch and the crow knows it and sits on the table next to him. My colleague gives some food to the crow. When my colleague goes to another building on the campus, the crow follows him between the buildings. It’s so incredibly cool.

    1. An older man in our neighborhood feeds the crows cat food on his morning walk. They see him coming before I do, and perch up on top of the buildings waiting for him, swooping down when he crosses over to their side of the street.

      He’s pretty low-key about it, but I used to walk my son to kindergarten every morning, and you start to notice. Which is of course exactly what the crows did… Maybe he should have thrown me peanuts?

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