“If I had a cracker for every question I received about cockies behaving badly,” wrote ornithologist Richard Major, “you’d be calling me ‘Polly’.”
Let us translate for the non-Australians in the audience: sulfur-crested cockatoos, the large parrot species native to Australia, New Guinea, and Indonesia, are a pest and a nuisance. They eat crops, keep you up at night with their ear-splitting screeches, and will even steal the trash out of your garbage can in search of a tasty snack.
They’re also just crazy intelligent – “comparable to a chimpanzee in intelligence," according to bird expert Gisela Kaplan. And just like chimpanzees, they’re also highly social, living in flocks of up to hundreds of birds.
And it’s this combination of smarts and sociability, according to a new study published in Science, that makes the “clever cockies” so good at trash diving. For the first time ever, it’s been shown that the birds are capable of learning from each other to figure out complex problems posed by the environment.
“[The] results show the animals really learned the behavior from other cockatoos in their vicinity,” explained lead co-author of the study Barbara Klump. “We observed that the birds do not open the garbage bins in the same way, but rather used different opening techniques in different suburbs, suggesting that the behavior is learned by observing others.”
The study began back in 2018, when Richard Major, a bird expert at the Australian Museum Research Institute, happened to see a cockatoo raiding a kerbside trashcan. The bird hadn’t simply gotten lucky – Major, and later Klump and fellow lead author Lucy Aplin, watched the cockatoo methodically use its beak and foot to lift the heavy lid, shuffle along the side to flip it over, and rejoice in the stinky bounty contained within.
“It was so exciting to observe such an ingenious and innovative way to access a food resource,” said Klump. “We knew immediately that we had to systematically study this unique foraging behavior.”
So the team sent out surveys across Sydney and Australia asking local residents about the bird-brained bin behavior. Over two years, they saw the practice spread out from three neighborhoods to forty-four.
Now, it may be tempting to put this down to coincidence or instinct, but there are a few reasons the team are pretty sure it’s neither. Firstly, only about ten percent of the cockatoos in any given area seemed to be responsible for opening the garbage cans, while the rest just kind of sat about and waited for the feast to be unveiled. Secondly, the technique spread quickest into neighboring areas and took longer to reach areas further away – it wasn’t just popping up randomly across the country. And finally, the specifics of the scavenging behavior changed from neighborhood to neighborhood, implying the emergence of regional subcultures within the cockatoo population.
"By studying this behavior with the help of local residents, we are uncovering the unique and complex cultures of their neighborhood birds," said Klump.
Despite the sulfur-crested cockatoo’s reputation for being loud and aggressive, this trash-scavenging culture has given a glimpse into their incredible intelligence and adaptability. And in the battle against human encroachment, those are indispensable.
Or to put it in local language: they may act like a pack of galahs, but those clever cockies are bloody beauts. Sydney bin chickens, beware!