Picking up discarded cigarette butts and other bits of trash in a public park can be a bit of a Sisyphean task, as anyone ever entrusted with the chore can tell you. The management of a French theme park has had a bright idea, though: why not train some resident animals to do it?
The Puy du Fou historical theme park in a rural area of western France has done just that: train six rooks to pick up cigarette butts and small pieces of litter in return for treats. According to a news report, the birds (called Boubou, Bamboo, Bill, Black, Bricole and Baco) have been doing a pretty swell job since they started a few days ago.
“The park is very clean,” the park’s president Nicolas de Villiers was quoted as saying. “The purpose of the crows … is to educate the people, to open their minds, to think, ‘OK, the birds are able to do something that we are much more able to do than them, so we should do this by ourselves.'”
It was one of the park’s falconers who hit on the idea of training some of the resident rooks, which belong to the Corvidae family of birds, to pick up litter. Some crows had previously been trained at the park to pick up roses and bring them to a ‘princess’ in a medieval castle. So the falconer decided that he would train some birds to pick up bits of paper and cigarette butts instead of roses and to deposit them in a little trash can rather than deliver them to a human. “It became a game for them,” de Villiers said. “They pick up the papers on the floor, and they are rewarded.”
Biologists have long known that corvids (a family of passerine birds that include crows, ravens, jackdaws and magpies) are among the smartest feathered creatures on Earth. Some of them, like New Caledonian crows, have been known to use tools, and even create them, for fishing out food from tight spots with admirable alacrity.
Not has it been the first time that crows have been trained to pick up cigarette butts in parks. Last year two Dutch engineers enlisted crows in the parks of Amsterdam to collect cigarette butts and other small pieces of litter in exchange for food.
“What you want is that the crows [come to] associate food with butts,” Ruben van der Vleuten, one of the engineers, explained. Once the birds learn to do that, they become relentless, scouring their park for cigarette butts and other pieces of litter so they can get their food rewards.
Now all we have to do is learn from our diligent feather friends and set about picking up litter on city streets and public parks ourselves.