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For most of us, pulling boxes to the curb every week is a great example of domestic toil.
But for cockatoos gazing from trees, seeing wheelie boxes can mean mealtime.
the main points:
- Parrots have been seen opening household litter boxes in suburban New South Wales
- Garbage-opening behavior has expanded to 44 suburbs in just two years
- Birds seem to learn these skills by watching others and imitating their movements
In recent years, there have been reports of cookies tipping over to open the lid of household waste bins to steal leftovers.
And it turns out that the cookies pick up lid-flipping skills by copying each other, allowing the behavior to spread quickly across suburbs in New South Wales, according to a study published today in Science.
Richard Major, an ecologist at the Australian Museum, said the birds’ sharp skills are another example of their ability to thrive in urban areas.
“It really confirms that they are very successful in suburban survival,” said Dr. Major, who co-authored the study.
Catching acne in the act
It all started when Dr. Major saw a sulfur-topped cockatoo arrive not so well on a trash can in Stanwell Park, New South Wales in 2015.
Dr. Major, holding his phone camera, captured a video of the thief lifting the lid of the heavy box with its beak and foot.
The bird quickly moved along the edge of the box to flip the lid and dive to look for food scraps.
This clever cookie prompted Dr. Major to wonder whether this naughty behavior was caused by genetics or a skill the bird had learned from others.
So he sent the video to study co-author Lucy Apelin, who studies social learning in animals at the Max Planck Institute for Animal Behavior in Germany.
The researchers knew a closer look was in order, but first they needed to see if cockatoos in other areas were flipping boxes as well, or if they were just a whim in Stanwell Park candy.
Rapid spread skill
In 2018, the team launched an online survey of residents living in 478 suburbs across Sydney and Wollongong.
The two-year survey asked participants if they had seen a cockatoo cracking in wheelie boxes in their suburbs, and if so, when.
Prior to the survey, cockatoos had been reported to have opened in only three suburbs.
Then it spread quickly.
By late 2019, birds were seen raising box lids in 44 suburbs, indicating that they were quickly becoming a trend among their yellow-peaked residents.
“It really blew me away,” said Dr. Major.
Dr. Major and his colleagues discovered by deep diving that box-opening behavior spreads more quickly to cockatoos in nearby suburbs than to those in more distant suburbs.
This indicates that the goons were acquiring their trash-breaking skills from their colleagues.
Crested sulfur cockatoos are real characters, said co-author John Martin of the Taronga Conservation Society.
“I really love watching them and watching them watch me,” he said.
“That’s what happened here with this new behavior of opening the box, they were watching each other and we showed that they were socializing.”
The team also noted that birds in different suburbs had evolved their own technique of lifting box lids, indicating that they were most likely copying birds from the same area.
For example, some birds grabbed the handle of the hood with their feet, while others used their beak.
Some have even used a combination of the two to open the lid.
Male cockies are masters of opening bin
Next, the team took a closer look at cockatoos that had been snooping in open house crates.
The team marked 114 cockatoos with paint in Stanwell Park and noted their gender, weight and social dominance.
They found only nine of the birds that successfully flipped into boxes, and another that flipped over 27 They try the mission but fail.
Most successful raiders have been dominant males, which tend to be larger and stronger than other cockatoos.
The rest sat around and watched the pioneer opening the trash can flip the lid.
“It’s not a mystery that birds solve it all on their own,” Dr. Major said.
“One bird will solve the puzzle, and then because other birds are watching it, they will copy it. And that’s how the behavior spreads.”
Dr. Martin said they don’t yet know how cockatoos began searching for their food in the trash.
“Did the birds explore the boxes or did they find a container that was already open and so they learned there was food and then learned how to open the box to get to the food? It’s a mystery,” he said.
“It’s not a desirable behavior opening family chests, so there are a number of strategies to deter them, but it’s a very interesting behavior from a scientific perspective because of the innovation and the social learning component.”
Eyelid lift for fun?
Gisela Kaplan, a behavioral ecologist at the University of New England who specializes in birds, said that although barn-opening behavior was common among cockatoos, it was not clear from the study whether finding a meal was the biggest driver behind their antics.
“There could be multiple explanations for this activity,” said Professor Kaplan, who was not involved in the study.
She added that other bird species have also been known to pick up behaviors that have no apparent benefit.
For example, blue breasts were seen removing the caps of milk bottles, something that has spread throughout the population in England, Professor Kaplan said.
“You can adopt new behaviors just by watching,” she said. “You don’t have to have any greater motivation than that.”
Work continues with the help of citizen scientists
The next step for Dr. Major and his team is keep tracking The prevalence of container-opening behavior in cockatoos and an investigation of how they functioned around chests that were fixed with stones or bricks on their lids.
“There is a lot of learning that cockatoos have to do here, and we will follow up on it,” said Dr. Major.
Citizen scientists like Suzie Roessel continue to give researchers extra eyes and ears across Sydney.
She said many cockatoos visit her, but she hasn’t seen open boxes yet.
“I have names for about 40 or 50 of them, and we hang out daily,” she said.
“I’ve seen them learn from each other, a few I’ve coached to do footwork — they’ll hold my toe with their foot.”
“There are new birds arriving now and they are faster to train after seeing other birds doing it.”
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