Wild cockatoos learn to open trash cans by imitating species – first evidence of social learning

Beautiful parrots, more than half a meter in size with a bright yellow crest, originated in eastern Australia and the nearest islands there. Unlike the other 350 known species of parrot, the sulfur-tipped cockatoo thrives especially in urban areas. They are often considered a nuisance in cities due to their destructive behavior. For example, they nibble on balconies.

For people searching for parrots, discovering their social learning abilities isn’t much of a surprise, says biologist Timothy Wright of New Mexico State University. He’s researching parrots’ ability to vocalize and was not involved in the new research. But according to Wright, the research contributes to the knowledge that parrots are highly intelligent animals.

“I often call parrots the most humane of birds, and this proves that once again,” he says.

A predictable pattern in cockatoo learning behavior

Around 2015, researchers learned that parrots were opening trash cans in Sydney’s southern suburbs. “What made it interesting was that this food source was all over town, and the birds were all over town, but the behavior wasn’t everywhere,” Clamp says. (Read more about the increasing scientific focus on bird intelligence.)

She and her team conducted an online survey of residents in and around Sydney and Wollongong, asking if cockatoos who live in their area can open trash cans. This resulted in reactions from people from about four hundred suburbs.

During the first survey in 2018, residents of three southern suburbs reported that the birds were able to open trash cans with their beaks and claws. By the end of 2019, the behavior had spread to 44 suburbs. When a map was created using that data, he found that the behavior spreads from neighborhood to neighborhood in a predictable pattern — a clear indication, according to Clumb, that opening trash cans is learned behavior rather than random.

Over time, birds have developed various techniques for opening flaps in chests. There were various ways to use their legs or beak. According to the researchers, this is evidence of the existence of regional subcultures. (Discover how the black cockatoo of Australia uses instruments to compose music.)

Scientists conducted their research on about five hundred cockatoos living in the suburbs. Once the birds got used to their presence, the scientists used makeup sponges to smear non-toxic paint on the birds’ feathers so they could identify which animals could open trash cans.

Only ten percent of the five hundred birds that were marked could open a litter box. They were mostly male. This may be due to their dominant position in the social hierarchy of animals, Clamp said, or to their larger size and therefore better physical ability to open the valves. The behavior was not restricted to a particular age group; Young birds prove just as good as older birds.

Science with the help of the public

This research clearly shows that cockatoos are able to change their feeding behavior in order to obtain new food sources. This behavior is being adopted and modified over time – at least during this study, said ecologist Daniela Teixeira of Australia’s University of Queensland. She conducts research on the Australian cockatoo.

She says the research offers “some hope” that endangered species of cockatoos can also learn new ways to obtain food and share that knowledge with their species, she said. One such endangered species is the red-tailed crow, which is found in southeastern Australia. There are less than 1,500 of this bird in the wild.

Teixeira also credits the use of public observations to study wild parrots. “It’s great to see this behavior spread in such a short time, and even cooler that it’s been recognized through audience feedback,” she says. “This is a new approach.” (Read how people became more attentive to the wildlife in their environment during a pandemic.)

Wright was also fascinated by audience participation and the animal-friendly way of identifying birds. “This research as a whole is well designed because of the diversity of research methods,” he says, especially because it pertains to wild parrots that are not as much researched.

“We’ve always known that parrots are very smart animals,” he says.

The National Geographic Society, dedicated to highlighting and protecting the wonders of our world, has funded the work of explorer Barbara Clamp. Read more about the Society’s support for explorers searching for and protecting endangered species.

This article was originally published in English at NationalGeographic.com

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