NATURE

Swedish cleaning startup trains wild crows to get cigarette bumps off the streets

Unusual trading could help cities to tackle a massive problem. According to the initiator, it benefits both humans and birds.
By JOHAN MAGNUSSON
January 27, 2022

According to the non-profit The Keep Sweden Tidy Foundation, an estimated 1 billion cigarette bumps end up on the streets in Sweden every year. In their national litter measurements, they account for 62% of all the waste collected. According to a new Swedish littering law, people who are caught by police throwing away cigarette butts can be fined up to €75. Entrepreneur Christian Günther-Hanssen holds a degree in behavioral economics, also known as nudging. He aims to look for quite unexpected help to get rid of the problem.

— Nudging is about influencing the behaviour of mainly humans, but I did it on birds instead, he tells. The idea came up during a course on behaviourism while I was reading a chapter on BF Skinner, who’s a big name in the field. He trained birds in a cage, while the crows were cawing outside, and I thought to myself: Why can’t you do this also on wild birds?

A few years ago, a Dutch startup tested a similar project in The Netherlands. The method, Günther-Hanssen tells, is to put out a vending machine for birds.

— If they pick up a cigarette butt they get a peanut. It takes some time to train them, but once they know, they’re very happy to do this.

Don’t you think that this can be a bit controversial, how humans ”use” wild birds for our own benefits? And given all the substances in a cigarette, can’t this be harmful to the crows?

— This can hopefully be beneficial both for humans and birds. Birds in cities often eat junk food which might cause vitamin deficiency. By controlling their food and also, possibly, giving medicine against diseases, the bird can get better health through this project. All birds take part in this of their own free will, but at the same time, it’s important to be cautious of which birds we use. Crows and jackdaws who already live in cities won’t have their natural environment disturbed, but if the machine attracts birds from the forest, it could be a problem. The idea is to detect species and trigger a shutdown of the machine so that they can’t use it, says Günther-Hanssen, adding,

— No one has ever tested if this could be dangerous for the birds. I don’t think it will be but I will make sure to test this as well.

The next step for Corvid Cleaning is a planned pilot project in partnership with the city of Södertälje.

— I’ve found this method to train wild birds that work, as they did pick up the items that I put out. Other, independent projects have also got this far, but no one has ever tried to pick real trash in a public place. This is what we hope to do in Södertälje, but we still need to find some financing in order to do it properly. Hopefully, we’ll be ready to launch soon, Günther-Hanssen concludes.

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