Cockatoos learn from each other to open garbage cans

On the outskirts of Sydney, galerita cockatoos (Cacatua galerita), native to eastern Australia, routinely loot household garbage cans by lifting lids to search for food. Until a few years ago, this behavior was only observed in a few specimens.

The scientist Richard Major, from the Australian Museum, managed to capture on video this curious behavior, which he had never seen before in this species. He shared the images with Lucy Aplin, from the Taronga Conservation Society in Australia, who was fascinated to see a gallerite cockatoo opening a closed garbage can.

Scientists were not only struck by this behavior itself, but also by the fact that several of these birds learned to perform this task over time.

Scientists were not only struck by this behavior itself, which requires several steps and some skill to lift the covers of homemade containers, but also the fact that several of these birds learned to do this work over time. .

“Opening the garbage is a difficult behavior to acquire, only 10% of the birds can do it. However, once they have learned to open them, they are very fast and they do it in a way that seems very easy ”, he explains to SINC Barbara C. Klump, researcher in the Cognitive and Cultural Ecology research group at the Max Planck Institute for Animal Behavior (Germany).

In a pioneering study, published in the journal Science, the scientist, together with Major and Aplin among other researchers, tried to find out how cockatoos learn to use this urban resource, to which they would not have access if they did not know how to open the covers. The results reveal that they do it for social learning, that is to say, copying each other.

“The opening of bins is the first evidence of the existence of complex foraging cultures in parrots,” emphasizes Klump. This innovative behavior in these birds is not due, therefore, to genetics, but rather represents a challenge for them.

A geographically distributed learning

Once the researchers came out of their astonishment after checking the skill of the cockatoos galeritas, they wanted to know if they did it wherever they went, especially since in Australia garbage cans have a uniform design in all the country. For this reason, in 2018 the team launched an online survey in various areas of Sydney with questions about the behavior of these birds.

After two years of probing, they determined how the behavior had spread. While at the beginning, before 2018, the foraging Containerized had only been detected in three residential neighborhoods, by the end of 2019 it had reached 44 of them, showing that learning had spread rapidly and widely.

Opening bins is a direct response to a human-altered environment. If it weren’t for people, there would be no trash cans to open

Barbara klump

In addition, the researchers analyzed 160 direct observations of this behavior in marked birds and they understood that cockatoos, especially malesThey used different styles and approaches depending on the areas in which they were looking for food.

“We observed that birds do not open garbage cans in the same way, but use different opening techniques in different neighborhoods. This suggests that behavior is learned by observing others, ”Klump emphasizes. The spread of this innovation not only allowed cultures, but also geographic subcultures.

The study also showed that the behavior arrived earlier and faster in nearby districts than in more distant ones, indicating that it was not showing up casually in the Sydney area.

“The opening of bins is a direct response to a human-altered environment. If it weren’t for people, there wouldn’t be garbage cans to open. Our research shows that animal culture can allow them to access novel resources in cities or in other altered environments and that, in turn, can facilitate local adaptation ”, Klump tells SINC.

The scientists hope that their findings will provide a better understanding of the animals that live in cities. “By studying this behavior with the help of local residents, we are discovering the unique and complex cultures of the birds in their neighborhood,” they conclude.


BC Klump et al. “Innovation and geographic spread of a complex foraging culture in an urban parrot”. Science

Rights: Creative Commons.

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