It’s mind-blowing to see animals learn meaningful tricks. Sure, a dog who can bring you a beer from the fridge is awesome too, but in today’s world, you gotta start thinking bigger than that.

Hans Forsberg works with robotics on industrial applications for artificial intelligence and had an idea on how he could put his knowledge and the family of wild birds living in his backyard to good use.

So, he trained the friendly neighborhood magpies to recycle bottle caps in exchange for food using a machine he built from scratch.

Magpies are pretty smart as birds go—so smart in fact that they now set an example with recycling trash

Image credits: Hans Forsberg

Hans has a backyard that’s home to a pair of magpies who have been living there for what seems like ages at this point. One day, Hans noticed how the curious little critters started finagling with the complex locks on his outdoor lanterns. And then a thought occurred.

The magpies were looking for paraffin candles inside the lanterns—because why not, just like crows, they love stealing—but Hans figured that these birds could quite possibly carry out more meaningful tasks.

So, he decided to build a machine with the help of which he would train the birds to collect trash around his garden in exchange for food. This was not only a fresh new project for him, but it seemed that nobody else had tried to do anything like this before as there were no how-tos on the internet, so it was all up to him.

Computer scientist Hans Forsberg built a machine that dispenses food in exchange for bottle caps

Image credits: Hans Forsberg

Whenever a magpie drops a bottle cap into the designated hole, it gets a treat from the dispenser

Image credits: Hans Forsberg

The project itself included several key components and processes. First there’s the dispenser, which is filled up with food, like peanuts and animal kibble. Whenever a piece of trash—in this case, a bottle cap—is deposited into a receptacle, it gives out one or two pieces of food.

Once an offering is given, the food is dispensed and falls down through a tube and a funnel that’s connected to a base with a small compartment where the bird can retrieve it.

The main box contains a Raspberry Pi system with a camera to monitor everything and there are also electronics and detectors hooked up below the table that the machine rests on to process and trigger the dispensation of food.

Over several years, he taught the neighborhood magpies to recycle bottle caps littered around the neighborhood

Image credits: Hans Forsberg

The adult magpies are cautious, but the young ones are keen on keeping the environment clean

Image credits: Hans Forsberg

The project is actually much more complicated than what is said here as it also involves vibrating motors, a number of very particular moving parts in the dispenser, and even its own graphic user interface to log the progress and status of the bird box. For more details, you can read up on it in his story on Hackster.

Turns out, this project has been running for several years as it’s not that easy to train magpies to pick up trash. Hans explained that he first had to get the birds interested in the feeder, to feed them regularly, and to persuade them to visit him during their patrols.

It was also a bit of a challenge every time there was the slightest change in the rig as the adult magpies were suspicious and cautious of everything. Good thing all of this changed when they had offspring. The chicks are braver in approaching the machine and partaking in this elaborate recycling scheme.

In the future, he hopes to teach them to pick up other kinds of trash, like cigarette butts

Image credits: Hans Forsberg

Check out the videos of the friendly magpies cleaning up the neighborhood

Image credits: Hans Forsberg

Image credits: Hans Forsberg

At this point, there is one chick who has fully figured out how the system works and has been hard at work collecting bottle caps to trade for food. His siblings are more mischievous about it as they tend to steal the rewards from underneath the hard working magpies’ beaks.

He hopes to move on to other bigger and better things than bottle caps—to train the birds to pick up fallen fruit, cigarette butts, and other things in his backyard as well as the entire neighborhood. Maybe this will finally put litter bugs to shame knowing that even animals partake in recycling.

Hans also made a brief explanation video of the food dispenser

Image credits: Hans Forsberg

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