Our planet is awash in cigarette butts. Trillions of them litter the landscape, pollute the oceans and release toxic chemicals into the environment.
But help is on the way from an unusual source: crows.
Puy du Fou, the second largest amusement park in France (after Disneyland Paris), has just deployed six crows trained to pick up cigarette butts and deposit them in a trash box in exchange for a treat.
“We want to educate people not to throw their garbage on the ground,” said Nicolas de Villiers, president of Puy du Fou. “If crows can be taught to pick up trash, why can’t humans?”
Cigarette filters may look small and innocuous, but don’t be fooled. They take years to decompose, contain arsenic, lead and other bad stuff – and according to the anti-smoking group Truth Initiative, 4.5 trillion of them are improperly discarded every year.
Studies have shown that many smokers just can’t break the habit of tossing them out the car window or flicking them to the ground and grinding them out with their shoe, even when non-littering options are available.
“So it may come as no surprise that cigarettes are the most littered item on Earth,” Truth Initiative says.
This isn’t the first time we’ve turned to crows for assistance. Despite starring as the bad guys in Alfred Hitchcock’s classic film “The Birds,” they’re regarded as highly intelligent, industrious and trainable.
In 2008 inventor Josh Klein created a “crow vending machine” that dispensed a peanut every time a crow put a coin in the slot. He supplied the coins, hoping to train them to hunt for change on their own, but the effort fizzled.
Three Dutch designers are currently working on the “CrowBar,” a device that releases a food nugget after a camera inside confirms that the crow has delivered a cigarette butt. They envision the day when CrowBars will nest throughout cities, where there are plenty of crows and butts.
Not everyone is convinced. Kevin McGowan, a crow specialist at Cornell University, doesn’t believe the birds will be so willing to give us a beak. “It’s the same as saying it would be a cool idea to graft wings onto sheepdogs so they could do better with rounding up sheep,” he told Slate magazine.
At Echo Environmental, we’re rooting for the crows at Puy du Fou. But we’re also intrigued by the idea of one online commenter.
“Train the crows to peck the eyes off litterers,” he suggested.