Tag Archives: crows

Sweden recruits crows to clean up cigarette butts from its streets

Credit: Pixabay.

Billions of cigarette butts are discarded on Swedish streets each year, representing the most common type of littering in the Scandinavian country. Smokers leave this litter everywhere, from bus stations to narrow alleys. Since they’re so widely distributed across the entire city, clean-up is a never ending and expensive uphill battle. But this is where smart crows may come in.

Corvid Cleaning, a startup from Södertälje, near Stockholm, is on a mission to rid Swedish streets of annoying cigarette butts. To this aim, they’ve recruited some unlikely sanitation workers.

The startup is currently running a pilot program in Södertälje in which New Caledonian crows are trained to pick up butts off the street and deposit them in a special machine, which hands out a small food reward for every butt.

Crows are some of the most intelligent creatures in the world, not just of the bird kingdom. They use tools, which they’ve crafted themselves, to reach otherwise inaccessible food; remember people’s faces and even hold grudges; understand water displacement better than some human children, as well as the concept of zero, and solve highly complex puzzles involving intricate steps. 

In comparison to their previous brainy feats, cigarette butt retrieval is easy pickings for these clever corvids. The startup founders are also banking on crows’ propensity for learning through observation when doing so benefits them, in this case by gaining easy access to tasty food. A handful of trained crows could turn into a swarm of cigarette butt-retrieving birds.

All the birds involved in this project are not being held in captivity, so they’re free to abandon the project at any time. For all intents and purposes, the crows are volunteering for this role.

If all goes well in this pilot program, the initiative could be extended to the whole of Stockholm, a city of nearly two million. It all hinges on how effective and financially feasible the program proves to be. Corvid Cleaning claims implementing the project across the city could cut cigarette butt cleanup costs by 75%.

“The estimation for the cost of picking up cigarette butts today is around 80 öre [Swedish change] or more per cigarette butt, some say two kronor. If the crows pick up cigarette butts, this would maybe be 20 öre per cigarette butt. The saving for the municipality depends on how many cigarette butts the crows pick up,” Christian Günther-Hanssen, the founder of Corvid Cleaning, told The Guardian.

A similar project was tested in 2017, in the Netherlands, and in 2018, at the Puy du Fou theme park in ​​Western France.

It remains to be seen whether this creative plan will pan out as intended. In the meantime, we can’t help noticing that it is easier to train birds to pick up cigarette butts than it is for humans to learn not to discard them on the street.

“Fascinating”: Crows are even smarter than we thought

Are you even surprised? This seems to happen quite a lot lately: we knew crows are smart, but a new study shows they’re even smarter — and it’s happened yet again. This time, New Caledonian crows combined individual tools they’ve never seen before to form a long-reaching tool.

Image credits: University of Oxford.

We used to consider tool-making as a uniquely human ability, but now we know that’s not nearly the case. Not only do a number of other primates employ simple tools, but other, more different creatures (like crows) do the same thing. Several studies have documented the remarkable tool-making ability of crows (particularly New Caledonian crows), but now, they’ve surprised researchers once again: not only are they capable of using tools, but they can develop compound tools from individually-useless components.

“Except for few observations in captive great apes, compound tool construction is unknown outside humans, and tool innovation appears late in human ontogeny. We report that habitually tool-using New Caledonian crows (Corvus moneduloides) can combine objects to construct novel compound tools,” the study reads.

The scientists gave eight crows a “puzzle box” which contained food. Naturally, the crows wanted it. However, the treat was placed behind a door that only left a narrow gap along the bottom. The crows could see the food deep inside the box, but couldn’t access it. They were then given short sticks — way too short to reach the prize — and left to sort things out for themselves, with no demonstration.

Image credits: University of Oxford.

But scientists did give the crows a bit of help: the sticks they left behind were designed to be combinable — one was hollow, allowing the other one to be slotted inside. Four of the eight birds had no problems figuring this out, and one bird, ‘Mango’, was able to make compound tools out of three and even four parts.

“The finding is remarkable because the crows received no assistance or training in making these combinations, they figured it out by themselves,” says Auguste von Bayern, first author of the study from the Max-Planck-Institute for Ornithology and University of Oxford.

Mango, as it turns out, was somewhat of a moody genius. He exhibited remarkable abilities, but sometimes, just didn’t want to do the task. His accomplishment, however, is particularly remarkable since it’s the first time any non-human animal has designed a tool using 3 or more parts.

“The successful birds acted in a seemingly purposive manner, using the compound tools to aim at the food immediately after creating them. This typically required transporting the compound to the box for use,” the researchers wrote in their paper.

“Except for one individual, Mango, a bird with apparently fluctuating motivation, the successful subjects also solved the task in the 3 opportunities that followed their first success. Mango refused to participate in 2 follow-up trials but succeeded continuously afterwards.”

The fact that the crows — who have such a different anatomy and mental structure compared to humans — were able to do this is remarkable. Tool-related behavior, especially innovative tool manufacture, is intimately associated with human evolution. Many anthropologists believe that this ability co-evolved with specific neurological capacities, particularly planning and complex task coordination. So how come crows developed this ability?

The species seems to have an innate propensity to build tools, and a remarkable ability to innovate. But understanding how their mind works remains a challenge for future research.

Alex Kacelnik from the University of Oxford says:

“The results corroborate that these crows possess highly flexible abilities that allow them to solve novel problems rapidly, but do not show how they do it. It is possible that they use some form of virtual simulation of the problem, as if different potential actions were played in their brains until they figure out a viable solution, and then do it. Similar processes are being modelled on artificial intelligences and implemented in physical robots, as a way to better understand the animals and to discover ways to build machines able to reach autonomous creative solutions to novel problems.”

Journal Reference: A. M. P. von Bayern, S. Danel, A. M. I. Auersperg, B. Mioduszewska, A. Kacelnik. Compound tool construction by New Caledonian crows. Scientific Reports, 2018; 8 (1) DOI: 10.1038/s41598-018-33458-z

" Whatcha' lookin' at, bub?" Crows know when humans are watching them.

Crows remember and respond to people’s faces akin to humans themselves

Crows, like most other species from the corvid family (ravens, rooks, etc.), are some of the most intelligent animals on the planet, actually rivaling apes and dolphins. Tool use is common among these birds, but where they shine is in their social and emotional intelligence. For instance, a few years ago I reported how ravens point at things with their beaks to relay and communicate insights and intentions with their peers. Eurasian Jays, another corvid, can infer the desire of another bird – say, its partner – and bring it food that it considers at treats (corvids have strong personalities).

There’s never a shortage of new, amazing things we learn about this most gifted family of birds though. Crows, the most familiar bird of the family, possess some of the most amazing social skills in the animal kingdom. A new study published in the journal Ethology, led by Barbara Clucas of Humboldt State University, revealed new dimensions in the crow’s social reasoning. Namely, boggling as it is (remember, we’re talking about a bird), crows can recognize, respond and adapt to specific human faces.

For instance, it was proven that crows take off much sooner when people are heading their way with gaze fixed on the crows, as opposed to people marginally looking the crows’ way. Basically, crows have learned to differentiate between people who are just strolling by them and people who are actually heading their way. Most birds or animals scatter when a human is approaching no matter what. Crows know when to play it cool, and when it’s time to scram. Scientists believe this is a direct response to living in an urban environment, and that’s not that big of  a surprise considering it’s been shown urban birds have a significantly larger brain than their rural counterparts.

" Whatcha' lookin' at, bub?" Crows know when humans are watching them.

” Whatcha’ lookin’ at, bub?” Crows know when humans are watching them.

Proving further on that crows indeed read and respond to human eye contact, John Marzluff of the University of Washington, a co-author of the paper, made a most interesting experiment, for which his patience was duly rewarded. Five years ago, he invited some of his researcher friends for a walk in the park; not your typically promenade, mind you. The researchers were divided into two groups: each would wear a particular type of mask on their faces, however one of the groups would trap crows, while the other would just pass crows by. Fast forward to present day and the findings are nothing short of amazing. The researchers returned to the park with their masks on. The birds present at the original trapping remembered which masks corresponded to capturing—and they passed this information to their young and other crows. All the crows responded to the sight of a researcher wearing a trapping mask by immediately mobbing the individual and shrieking.

“It’s one thing to learn from one’s own experience and another to observe that happening to other individuals and infer it could happen to you,” Marzluff explains.

Indeed this is a fundamental difference, in most instances one that has helped the human race evolve and prosper. This is how teaching is passed on, this is how human culture has been raised. Seeing crows communicate an abstract information or symbol (the particular type of mask associated with trapping) to other crows that did not have first hand, affective information is , to me, mind boggling!

How do crows have such a fine and efficient human face recognition behavior, and moreover such a powerful adaptive capacity? PET scans reveal that when crows viewed human faces that they associated with threat or care, the birds had increased activity in the amygdala, thalamus and brain stem—areas related to emotional processing and fear learning. In response to threatening faces, areas that regulate perception, attention and fleeing also lit up. Similarities to the human brain in this case are most striking.

Again, crows prove they’re some of the most intelligent species on the planet. They use tools, they recognize people’s faces and voices, they can tell when one of their peers has died, and so much more. Truly, they’re amazing animals, unworthy of the ‘harbinger of death’ stigma cast on by people based solely on their appearance. Owls? You’d better refine your wisdom animal totem.

For more on crows and their amazing abilities, check out this informative, but best of all entertaining article from cracked.

via Sci American