Author Philip Pullman once said that if demons (the animal embodiment of a person’s inner self) were real, his would be a magpie – since they choose shiny things without distinguishing between “a diamond ring and a bit of kitkat wrapping”. The idea is an intriguing metaphor for seeing value in more than just monetary terms. Yet, just because we compromise the birds’ environment with our debris, should we rely on them to pick it up?
A new project in Sweden suggests hooded crows could do just that. In recent weeks, an initiative called “Corvid Cleaning” has received considerable media attention after a video emerged from a bird dropping a fake cigarette butt into a waste collection device. The device then rewards the creatures by releasing food.
Its founder, Christian Günther-Hanssen, explains about the initiative website that he hadn’t expected it to receive so much coverage at this early stage – but hopes the ‘bird box’ will soon be rolled out in a pilot project. If the program is picked up and expanded nationwide, it could lead to savings of at least 75% in waste collection costs, he said. estimates.
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This is not the first attempt of its kind. This month, a similar experiment by Swedish father-son team Tomas and Olof Morsing also made the newslocal magpies depositing more than 5,000 pieces of waste in 10 months.
Some people responded to the projects with skepticism, pointing out their lack of formal scientific basis and how previous attempts yielded nothing. But whatever the future prospects of the idea, the level of online interest itself raises questions. If it is possible to train birds to collect litter on a large scale, should it be encouraged? And at what point does not doing enough to benefit nature slip too far in the other direction, becoming an arrogant intervention that does too much?
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Much of our modern existence relies 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 these creatures, there is no equivalent for their wilder counterparts.
Behind the surge of online interest in stories of bird waste collection, there may be a growing recognition that humanity’s duty of care needs updating. Animal welfare scientist Lisa Riley of the University of Winchester suggests that humans have encroached so much on natural habitats that the gap between wild and non-wild is becoming increasingly thin: “When human activity has caused a wild animal to suffer, that suffering has moral significance for us. […] and we should take the next logical step in protecting affected animals.
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The philosopher Kyle Johannsen and author of Wildlife Ethics, accept. “While natural states of affairs are certainly better than unnatural states of affairs produced by botched interventions, interventions that are careful, respectful and benevolent promise to improve the lives of animals and/or humans,” he said. he declared to new statesman. “In fact, wild animals have a lot to gain from well-intentioned interventions.”
In the case of would-be bird waste collectors, Riley and Johannsen see the promise. As long as training processes do not use coercion (which would be oppressive) and do not compromise bird health through proximity to hazardous substances (which would be exploitation), such programs could produce a good mutual.
But they also call for caution. Evidence-based research on the side effects of such a mechanism would be needed; from the need to regularly clean gear to the study of what happens if the birds become too dependent on the food source.
Along the same lines, like Cameron Meyer Shorb of Wild Animal Initiative points out, even well-intentioned interventions do not necessarily remove the underlying struggle to thrive: “More food per bird means more surviving birds, but more surviving birds ultimately means less food per bird.” Meanwhile, ripple effects on the ecological network must also be considered, with an increase in the crow population potentially wreaking havoc on smaller species.
To date, most conservation-focused wildlife training has focused on behaviors that promote distance from humans – from chimpanzees who are taught to scream when poachers approach, to polar bears who are encouraged to stay away from trash cans.
Yet perhaps what matters most, the three experts suggest, is that humanity stops turning its back on wildlife. It means both doing more to right the wrongs and finding opportunities to replace the bad with the good.
This change could involve helping creatures learn new behaviors, but also adapting our own. “It’s amazing what wild animals can be trained to do, but that doesn’t mean we should,” Riley says. “Maybe we should train people to put their cigarettes in the trash.”
[See also: Why rewilding isn’t just for toffs]