dutch start-up crowded cities wants to train crows to pick up cigarette butts

dutch start-up crowded cities wants to train crows to pick up cigarette butts

in a world saturated by start-ups there is one way to get yourself noticed – solve a problem that affects everyone. that’s the leading idea demonstrated by dutch example, crowded cities, who propose fostering a generation of litter picking crows. inspired – or more appropriately, disgusted – by the tremendous amount of cigarette butts surrounding major cities, industrial designers ruben van der vleuten and bob spikman came up with the idea.
crowded cities crowbar cigarette butts designboom
the crow bar proposes a solution to the major problem of cigarette butts, images © crowded cities


crowded cities propose the concept of a ‘crowbar’, a smart machine training crows to pick up cigarette butts from the street. the idea is an evolution of the ‘crow box’, an open source project that dispenses peanuts after crows insert coins – in essence, a vending machine for birds. these are two seemingly farfetched ideas that insist you do not underestimate the cleverness of a crow and those who are marginally aware will not. this particular species is ranked among the most intelligent on the planet, with a relative brain size measure equal to chimpanzees (a simple search on any video hosting site and subsequent four hours spent in amazement provides enough proof).
crowded cities crowbar cigarette butts designboom
the device will autonomously teach crows


crows have an understanding of causality and can therefore conceptualize, create, and use tools. in experiments exploring this notion they have proven their ability to play, learn from each other, and even count. devices like this utilize this fact by autonomously training crows to associate food with a certain activity. the first step presents the crow with food on a tray in the machine teaching the creature that the crowbar is in fact a new-age tuck shop for birds. the food is cleverly placed next to a cigarette butt getting the crow used to its existence before the food is taken away, only dispensed when the crow arrives – the second step in this learning process. in this step, ‘the crow gets used to the machine doing things’, bob says.

crowded cities crowbar cigarette butts designboom
the design concept was nominated for a dutch accenture innovation award


the third step is crucial as here the food is completely removed leaving only the butt. when the crow arrives, clever as they are, it eventually knocks the butt into the receptacle causing the food to drop. this step is repeated until the crow masters the activity and only then is human intervention necessary. step four involves the scattering of cigarette butts around the machine, mimicking those that are found ‘in the wild’ encouraging the bird to reset its life’s mission, destined to clean-up after the human race.
crowded cities crowbar cigarette butts designboom
the experiment is sourcing funding to realise necessary experiments


to be able to complete the project, the pair is looking for ways to fund a serious experiment to understand the possibility of training wild crows. at present the duo currently have all working pieces separately but are yet to work them together. 
crowded cities crowbar cigarette butts designboom
the duo report difficulties in teaching the machine to recognise cigarette butts


ignorance could only assume the proposal wont experience some sort of backlash. the company have already acknowledged the potential sacrifice of a few crows in their bid to clean the streets of butts or perhaps the solution will conjure a response in those causing the problem – the cigarette smokers. if crows become too efficient cigarettes could be scavenged before they’ve even reached the pavement, leaving city smokers stunned as the dedicated trainees make off with their packs of 20. then again, as some governments increase the efforts of their plight to ban smoking, perhaps the opening of crowbars in major cities could kill two birds with one stone (or butt).

  • Why don’t we train our humans to not litter?

    Erika Bosch says:
  • Share—what is the treat? ..a breath mint?


    JimCan says:
  • Brilliant!

    beachcomber says:
  • Bottle deposit works great to get people to bring empty bottles back to the shop. Although it’s just a few cents per bottle over here (8-25 cents), you often see poor people looking into trash cans searching for bottles. 1 cent per cigarette butt sounds good.

    Daniel says:
  • this will be fun when crows realise that cigarettes in peoples mouths and hands are as good as buds to het food, sort of cure the problem at it’s root…..kill two birds with one stone….well you get the picture! less smokers

    grig says:
  • “Why don’t we train our humans to not litter?” – Let’s see 5K years of history and still to this day we litter. It is unfortunate, but should we note yet again: necessity is the mother of invention – and this is a GREAT one! (if it works)

    Al in SoCal says:
  • I rais trained up never to leave any litter. We took it home and put it in the dustbin.Is it so hard to teach children to do this?

    Marjolijn Joosten says:
  • Birds are poisoned by tobacco. This is the most cruel concept I’ve seen all year. Even tiny bits of tobacco can make a bird ill or kill it. A good friend lost a precious talking Mynah Bird because of a butt left around that he forgot to pick up (that one day only–before that he was extremely careful).

    Poisoning Pigeons in the Park says:
  • A new level of training other animals to do nasty tasks that we casn’t seem to do well enough ourselves. Hopefully these crows will not sicken from handling the butts.

    Vladimir says:
  • I’m certainly sorry to hear about your friend’s pet bird Marjolijn. However, according to Smithsonian, city birds are already collecting some cigarette butts to fend off parasites. Must not be too toxic to some birds. https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/birds-harness-the-deadly-power-of-nicotine-to-kill-parasites-152456999/

    t_kinesis says:
  • The most horrible design project on Designboom. Didn’t expect Designboom would even share such a dumb thing Who ever designed it why don’t you go and pick the buds. leave the animals and birds alone out of this.
    A friendly Crow

    Hannah says:
  • wow, amazing. we could get dogs to do the same thing?

    Jossen says:
  • But how it is ensured that Crow will pick only cigarette-butts (e.g., it can pick other small objects similar to Cigarette- Butts).

    Wall Lasa says:
  • Who will guarantee that crows won’t attack smokers to taker their cigarettes for food supply?!

    HB says:
  • Cigarette butts are a massive problem but they will probably be toxic to birds. Maybe concentrate on crushed cans, crisp packets and paper cups for now. We can train drones to do the cigarette butts.

    Alllan says:

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