September 25, 2023



“So we discovered that crows, crows and magpies collect butts”

4 min read

“Do not feed the crows!” warned the plaques placed on the lawn of the Jardin des Plantes di Parigi up to two years ago, specifying in detail that these birds cause damage because they dig holes in the lawn and empty the rubbish bins. Today, on the contrary, walking through the avenues of the very popular park on the Rive Gauche of the Seine they meet signs illustrated with a corvid having a butt in its beak, below which stands the inscription: “If birds can do it, why can’t we?”. The attitude towards noisy birds has radically changed thanks to the first interspecies collaborative project to fight pollutionan experiment that has hired garbage collectors and testimonials of the most original city ​​cleaning campaign crows, crows, magpies and other corvids.

These animals have learned to collect small waste thanks to the work of the startup Birds for Changefounded in 2020 by two friends Jules Mollaretnow 24 years old, graduated in business and commerce, e Thibault Cour, 25, engineer. The young company is based in Aix-en-Provence (Marseille) and the idea of ​​teaming up with animals came from watching pigeons cleaning up crumbs in front of a bencha behavior that prompted a question and a challenge to Mollaret: what if birds could also collect cigarette butts?

The ransom of the crows: they educate humans

“Seeing the crows collect the butts makes us reflect on our incivility: a sort of jolt to the conscience”, explains Mollaret. “In addition to cleaning cities, our project serves to raise awareness about plastic pollution and to make them aware of the intelligence of corvids, often considered harmful”. To enroll birds from France’s most important Botanical Garden, Birds for Change made a collaboration agreement with several researchers. “Scientific support comes mainly from Frederic Jiguetornithologist of the Natural History Museum of Paris, and by Valerie Dufourethologist at the National Scientific Research Center (CNRS) and the National Research Institute of Agriculture and the Environment (INRAE),” adds Cour.

An army of winged garbage collectors

To take care of the meticulous cleaning work are not trained animals from farms, but the crows already present in the park (over 900 in the Jardin des Plantes). What is even more surprising is to discover that these sharp-sighted birds learn by themselves to carry out the task, without even training in contact with humans, thanks to a protocol developed by ethologists. How is it possible? “We have developed a device called Bird Box. Wild birds learn to deposit waste in the Bird Box through self-training which takes place in four stages; when the crows arrive on the platform and put the booty in the basket, an image detector analyzes the recovered material and, if it is actually a butt, a cap, a piece of plastic or a can, the animal receives a food reward “, explains Cour. This technology is used to distinguish real waste from pebbles and twigs before rewarding the bird.

The intelligence of crows

The scientific committee accompanying the experiment, in contact with the association for the protection of corvids Ladel, ensures that the animals are free in their actions. “It is thanks to their curiosity that these birds understand how our machine works. Pioneering individuals learn through play; their companions observe them and imitate them because the consequence is gratifying,” says Mollaret. exceptional intelligence: some of their cognitive abilities can equal or even exceed those of a child aged 5 to 8″.

“We adjust the Bird Boxes based on the results and set time slots and seasonality of the food distribution so that the prize does not become the birds’ main food source, so as not to upset the ecosystem”, specifies Cour. In the experiments conducted so far, for example, a crow eliminates about thirty cigarette butts a day from the park. “We are not talking about a massive dirt collection solution, but rather an initiative that aims to raise awareness“, he adds. The project, awarded by the Paris&Co’s Urban Innovation platform, is being carried out in parallel with the Parc Icade des Portes de Paris in Saint-Denis-Aubervilliers, the Technopôle de l’Environnement Arbois-Méditerranée in Aix-en-Provence and in the center CNRS of Strasbourg.

In the coming months, the bird boxes will be available for hire to public bodies that request them and the dream of the two founders of the startup is now to be able to soon start a competition between men and birds in many parks (but also in ski resorts and in other crowded places), to see who collects more butts between the two. Waiting to understand if Birds for Change will also arrive in Italy – where there is no shortage of butts and crows – we recommend two readings to deepen the theme of bird intelligence: The genius of birdsby Jennifer Ackerman (The Ship of Theseus) e The mind of the Ravenin Bernd Heinrich (Adelphi).

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