Cheep Cheep Labor: Swedish Crows Trained to Clean Up Trash

The crows are taught to pick up city litter in exchange for food.

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crow eating walnut
Photo: Christian Charisius/picture alliance (Getty Images)

Crows are absolutely brilliant birds. Trust me, I saw an episode of Nature on PBS about them once, so I’m clearly an expert. Because the birds are so smart, The Guardian reports that Swedish cleaning company Corvid Cleaning is teaching New Caledonian crows how to pick up litter, specifically cigarette butts, in exchange for delicious treats. The program aims to save money on human labor to grab stuff off the street.

Corvid Cleaning is based out of Södertälje, a city near Stockholm. The birds are wild, meaning they’re not being bred for this purpose. New Caledonians are the ideal bird for the job, because they’re known for their intellect and reasoning skills.

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

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The city of Södertälje spends a lot of money on cleaning its streets: annually it costs 1.6 million Swedish kronor, which is the equivalent of just over $175,000. The Keep Sweden Tidy Foundation says that over one billion cigarette butts are discarded on Sweden’s streets each year, amounting to 62% of the nation’s total litter. Günther-Hanssen estimates his company could potentially save at least 75% of the cleaning costs involved with cigarette butts in Södertälje by using the trained crows.

Södertälje isn’t ready to employ the birds quite yet; there will be a pilot program before any crows are actually used for litter duty. If you’re concerned about the crows’ collective health, don’t worry—it’s a key concern for the whole project.

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About New Caledonian crows, Günther-Hanssen says, “They are easier to teach and there is also a higher chance of them learning from each other. At the same time, there’s a lower risk of them mistakenly eating any rubbish.”

The Daily Mail reports that the crows bring the garbage to a special vending machine that recognizes the cigarette butts, and then a little food is dispensed as a reward. Sounds sort of like giving your friends pizza and beer to help with moving your stuff.

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But, of course, it’s all about money. Tomas Thernström is a waste strategist at Södertälje municipality, and he brought up a good point.

“It would be interesting to see if this could work in other environments as well,” said Thernström. “Also from the perspective that we can teach crows to pick up cigarette butts but we can’t teach people not to throw them on the ground. That’s an interesting thought.”

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I’d ask if it really is that hard for people to throw cigarette butts into some kind of trash receptacle, but I already know the answer. I’ve seen plenty of them on the streets of Chicago. I’ve even seen someone empty what appeared to be a whole bucket of cigarette butts onto the street while waiting in their car at a stop light. Crows, you may be our only hope. Godspeed, little ones.