Crows Could Be Trained To Clear Up Cigarette Butts From The Streets


Tom Hale

Tom is a writer in London with a Master's degree in Journalism whose editorial work covers anything from health and the environment to technology and archaeology.

Senior Journalist

As super-smart city slickers, crows could be incredibly useful for humans. Fedorovekb/Shutterstock

The world flicks, drops, and litters over 4.5 trillion cigarette butts into our environment each year, making them the most plentiful type of trash on Earth. Not only is this widespread debris pretty gross, it’s also been shown to negatively affect the environment, marine life, and public health.

To help kick this problem, a Dutch start-up is summoning help from the masters of the dark arts: the crows. Crowded Cities is working on a project that involves training crows to pick up cigarette butts from city streets and dump them in a specialized bin, for which they are rewarded with food.


The team first needed to find an animal that was well-versed in city life, so it originally toyed with the idea of using pigeons, the designers told TNW. However, these city-slickers are not too clever.

Crows, on the other hand, are super-smart creatures, regularly pitted as being one of the most intelligent animals on the planet. In fact, some of their abilities rival that of 7-year-old children. Their sharp cognitive abilities make them incredibly talented problem solvers and relatively easy to train – ideal for this kind of mission. 

Design plans for the "Crowbar", a novel method to help clear the city streets of cigarette butts. Crowded Cities

This off-the-wall idea involves training crows to recognize cigarette butts and drop them into a “Crowbar” bin. A camera and computer system will be used to confirm this is actually a cigarette filter (and to verify the crow isn't trying to pull a quick one on the humans). After it’s confirmed, the Crowbar will drop a piece of food onto the table in front of the crow.

“The crow [then] goes out telling the others, or keeps this secret to himself – we are not sure,” the company jokes on its website.


Ruben van der Vleuten and Bob Spikman, the two brains behind the project, have designed and built the Crowbar but are yet to test it out using crows. They also hope to research whether this short-term contact with cig butts could have an effect on the crows' health.

Their inspiration came from Joshua Klein, a US-based hacker turned entrepreneur, who designed “The Crow Box”. This sleek machine is designed to autonomously train crows to deposit shiny coins into a box in exchange for peanuts. Since the design is Open Source, the Dutch designers rehashed the idea and applied it to the problem of city trash.

It’s a crazy idea, but the best ideas often are.

Crowded Cities


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