Cockatoos learn from each other how to open garbage bins

It’s an example of social learning, and the basis of a foraging culture

A new comic series from Science News for Students

JoAnna Wendel

itle panel for comic. Text reads "Clever Cockatoos" Written by Sarah Zielinski, Illustrated by JoAnna Wendel. Image: 3 cockatoos on a fence watch another cockatoo open a trashcan. Cockatoos: "Holy moly! Wow!"
Image: A researcher watching a cockatoo on her computer monitor. Text: One day, not so long ago, Barbara Klump and her colleagues received a video from a fellow researcher in Australia. In the video, a sulfur-crested cockatoo opened up a trash bin all on its own. Klump: What? How is that bird doing that? Did it figure it out on its own? Did it learn the behavior? How many cockatoos can do this? Klump’s mind filled with questions. And she knew how to find the answers. After all, she is a behavioral ecologist who now works at the Max Planck Institute of Animal Behavior in Radolfzell, Germany.
Image: 5 white birds sit in trees or on top of an alley fence. Text: Sulfur-crested cockatoos are a common bird in Australian cities and suburbs. The noisy parrots nest in trees and aren’t afraid of people. They’ll eat seeds, roots, flowers — and human food. Pretty much anything they can get. Birds: Squawk! Squawk! Squawk! Squawk! Squawk!
Klump and her colleagues created a survey. They asked people in and around Sydney, Australia to report if they had seen a cockatoo open a trash bin and when. The survey also asked if people had NOT seen a bird completing the task. Then the team mapped the behavior to see how it spread over time. In early 2018, birds opened bins in three suburbs. By the end of 2019, they did it in 44 suburbs.
Image: Two cockatoos sitting on a branch looking at a third cockatoo opening a trashcan. Birds: Wow, he’s a genius! I’ve got to try that myself! Text: Klump and her colleagues used a computer model to study the data. It considered factors like how far the birds can travel and population size. The researchers could see that the behavior spread through social learning. Social learning is learning through observation. It’s the basis of culture. The one exception was a bird that must have figured this out on its own in late 2018. That started off its spread of the behavior in a new area.
Text: Next, Klump and her team marked 486 cockatoos at three sites with a temporary paint. On garbage day, the researchers made videos of bin-opening behavior. From the videos, they could see that bin opening had five steps. Image: A cockatoo opening a trashcan in 5 steps. 1. Pry. 2. Open. 3. Hold. 4. Walk. 5. Flip.
Text: But each step had variations. Different birds performed each one a little bit differently. Not only do the birds have a culture of foraging, Klump says, but there are subcultures based on these variations in behavior. Image: a cockatoo opening a trashcan two different ways. One uses its beak to grasp the lid, the other uses a foot.
Text: Lastly, Klump’s team went to one spot, Stanwell Park, and looked at which birds opened bins. Not all birds performed the task. In fact, only 9 out of 114 did. Another 27 tried and failed. Image: A researcher sits in a park on a bench under a tree. She is taking notes and watching a cockatoo attempt to open a trashcan. The bird has not opened the lid. Bird: Open, dangit!
Image: Four cockatoos look into a trash bin. Text: Most bin-openers were male birds. That might be due to their higher social status. Or it could be because they’re bigger than females. Bin lids are heavy and not easy to open. Or it could be that other birds know they just have to wait for an open garbage bin to get a free meal.
Text: The bin-opening behavior only exists because of humans, Klump notes. And it shows how well these birds can adapt to life in the big city. Image: Cockatoo on an open trash bin rim, holding a banana peel in its beak. Bird: What’s on the menu today? Rotten banana and stale crackers? My favorite!
JoAnna Wendel

Sarah Zielinski is managing editor of Science News for Students. She has degrees in biology and journalism and likes to write about ecology, plants and animals. She has two cats, Oscar and Saffir.

JoAnna Wendel is a freelance science writer and cartoonist in Portland, Ore. She loves to make comics about all types of science, but she especially loves drawing planets, invertebrates and sea creatures. When she's not drawing, JoAnna is probably reading, hiking or hanging out with her cat, Pancake.

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