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  1. Environment
11 February 2022

Is it wise to turn birds into litter-pickers?

Even if crows can be trained to pick up trash, questions remain over whether they should.

By India Bourke

The author Philip Pullman once said that if daemons (the embodiment in animal form of a person’s inner self) were real, his would be a magpie – since they pick out shiny things without distinguishing between “a diamond ring and a bit of kitkat wrapper”. The idea is a beautiful metaphor for seeing value in more than simple monetary terms. Yet just because we compromise the environment of birds with our debris, should we rely on them to pick it up? 

A new project in Sweden is suggesting that hooded-crows could do just that. In recent weeks, an initiative called “Corvid Cleaning” has received considerable media attention after a video emerged of a bird dropping a fake cigarette butt into a litter-collecting contraption. The device then rewards the creatures by releasing food. 

Its founder, Christian Günther-Hanssen, explains on the initiative’s website that he hadn’t intended it to receive so much coverage at this early stage – but hopes the “bird bin” will soon be rolled-out in a pilot project. If the scheme gets picked up and extended across the country, it could lead to savings of at least 75 per cent of litter-collecting costs, he estimates.

[See also: WWF’s decision to fundraise via NFTs puts capitalism above conservation]

It is not the first attempt of its kind. This month, a similar experiment run by a Swedish father-and-son team Tomas and Olof Morsing also made the news, with local magpies depositing more than 5,000 items of litter over 10 months.

Some people have responded to the schemes with scepticism, pointing to their lack of formal scientific foundations, and how previous attempts have come to nothing. But regardless of the idea’s future prospects, the amount of online interest itself prompts questions. If it is possible to train birds to collect litter at scale, should it be encouraged? And at what point does not doing enough to benefit nature slide too far in the other direction, becoming an arrogant intervention that does too much?

A good deal of our modern existence is predicated on the questionable and sometimes cruel treatment of incarcerated animals, from factory farming to animal testing. Yet while legal protections exist to promote the welfare of such creatures, there is no such equivalent for their wilder counterparts.

Behind the outpouring of online interest in bird litter-collecting stories may lie a growing acknowledgment that humanity’s duty of care is in need of an update. The animal welfare scientist, Lisa Riley, of the University of Winchester, suggests that humans have encroached so far into natural habitats that the divide between wild and non-wild is increasingly thin: “When human activity has caused a wild animal to suffer, that suffering has moral relevance to us […] and we should take the next logical step in protecting the animals affected.”

[See also: How animals are adapting to climate change]

The philosopher Kyle Johannsen, and author of Wild Animal Ethics, agrees. “Though natural states of affairs are certainly better than non-natural states of affairs produced by botched interventions, interventions that are cautious, respectful and beneficent promise to improve the lives of animals and/or humans,” he told the New Statesman. “In fact, wild animals have a lot to gain from well-intentioned interventions.”

In the case of potential bird litter-pickers, Riley and Johannsen see promise. As long as training processes don’t use coercion (which would be oppressive), and don’t compromise bird health through proximity with dangerous substances (which would be exploitative), such schemes could produce mutual good. 

But, equally, they urge caution. Evidence-based research into the side-effects of any such mechanism would be required; from the need to regularly clean contraptions, to studying what happens if the birds become overly-dependent on the food-source. 

Relatedly, as Cameron Meyer Shorb of the Wild Animal Initiative points out, even well-intended interventions don’t necessarily remove the underlying struggle to thrive: “More food per bird means more birds surviving, but more birds surviving eventually means less food per bird.” Meanwhile, the knock-on effects on the ecological web must also be considered, with an increase in the crow population potentially wreaking havoc on smaller species.

To date, most conservation-oriented training of wild animals has focused on behaviours that promote distance from human beings – from the chimpanzees who have been taught to scream when poachers approach, to the polar bears encouraged to stay away from bins. 

Yet what perhaps matters most, suggest all three experts, is that humanity stops turning its back on wildlife. That means both doing more to both right wrongs, and figuring out opportunities to replace harm with good. 

This change could involve helping creatures to learn new behaviours, but equally it could mean adapting our own. “It is incredible what wild animals can be trained to do but that doesn’t mean we should,” says Riley. “Maybe we should train people to put their cigarettes in the bin.”

[See also: Why rewilding isn’t just for toffs]

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