We’ve posted several times about corvid intelligence. These birds are capable of using tools, solving complex problems, remembering human faces, communicating within groups, and much more. This has led some to wonder if crows could be trained to do actual work, such as picking up litter.
“But can’t humans just pick up after themselves?” you might ask. Theoretically, yes; that would be ideal. However, it has been made abundantly clear that some are either too lazy or simply not clever enough to locate a proper receptacle for their garbage, most notably their cigarette butts. Worldwide, it is estimated that 1.69 billion pounds of cigarette butts get cast out as litter each year. These butts end up in waterways where they pose a risk of leaching toxins and to wildlife who may try to eat them.
Crows have demonstrated an ability to recognize and dispose of garbage. Unfortunately, that ability may remain more of a parlor trick and be used to help researchers better understand corvid cognition than be used in a real-life setting.
This demonstration was conducted by the staff at the Montecasino Bird Garden in Johannesburg, South Africa:
Of course, there are some issues of practicality involved with training an army of crows with the sole purpose of ending litter. First of all, crows are incredibly clever. Would there be any real incentive for them to do the task as required? If not, they probably just wouldn’t do it. Secondly, crows have a tendency to hold grudges against humans and people living in urban areas would most likely not act so favorably toward birds who would constantly be in their way trying to find the litter. What may start out like a Disney movie with helpful birds cleaning up the streets could very well end up like an Alfred Hitchcock movie.
Looks like we’ll have to go back to training people.