In America, we get our garbage cans pillaged by bears, raccoons, and marauding gangs of well-organized rats. In Australia, people have their garbage cans pillaged by adorable cockatoos, which have figured out how to access all that yummy rubbish without knocking everything over like a bunch of uncivilized brutes. And somehow Australians have the audacity to complain about this! Sure, birds are somewhat known for being total dicks, but in all fairness, our species kinda deserves it. Plus, cockatoos are far smarter than the average “I don’t understand how lids work” bear, and have taught themselves how to open closed garbage cans using only their beaks and their tiny little feet. Even more remarkable: they learned this by teaching each other.
Scientists from Max Planck Institute of Animal Behavior in Germany have published a new study about the garbage foraging skills of urban parrots, which has shown that cockatoos learn new skills through social interaction with other cockatoos. The impetus for the study was a video taken by scientist Richard Major, who spied a sulphur-crested cockatoo opening a closed garbage bin with its beak and foot in Sydney, Australia. Major, who at the time was researching animal behavior at Oxford University in the UK, shared the video with fellow scientist Lucy Aplin of the Planck Institute, who was similarly fascinated by the behavior.
“It was so exciting to observe such an ingenious and innovative way to access a food resource, we knew immediately that we had to systematically study this unique foraging behavior,” said Klump in a statement.
The study determined that the birds have developed a five-step process for opening trash cans. First, they pry open the lid with their beaks. Next, they twist their heads sideways and hop along the edge to jimmy the lid open just enough to jam their feet into the gap. Then, while holding the lid open, they walk around the rim of the trashcan to find the perfect spot that will let them flip the lid wide open with a flick of their heads.
At the onset of the study, the scientists created an online survey that asked residents of Sydney if they had seen cockatoos rifling through their trash. Before 2018, reports of these extra-clever birds were only coming from three suburban areas. But sulphur-crested cockatoos are a highly social species, and by the end of 2019, the people from 44 suburbs were reporting that their local cockatoos had learned the five-step procedure, and were making a mess of their yards.
“These results show the animals really learned the behavior from other cockatoos in their vicinity,” Klump said in the release. The moral of this story: birds together can be a powerful force.