Cockatoos that open chests enter an “arms race” with humans

Scientists say the feline, sulfur-covered Australian cockatoo appears to have entered an “innovative arms race” with humans, with the two species competing for trash in roadside bins.

The whitefowl, which can grow nearly as long as a human’s arm, initially surprised researchers by devising an ingenious technique for awarding open prizes to home hoods in Sydney and elsewhere.

Now, a new study says they have gone a step further by thwarting the escalating defenses of weary humans.

A study published Monday in the journal Current Biology said the behavior of birds and humans may reveal a hitherto unexplored “arms race between species.”

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The picturesque town of Stanwell Park near Sydney is nestled between a forest and a surfing beach bordered by cliffs, and is on the front line of the Battle of the Boxes.

“If we didn’t close the bin right after we got rid of the trash, they’d be there,” said Anna Kollek, 21, manager of the town’s Loaf Café.

“Cockatoes are everywhere. Like, just rubbish all over the frontal area.”

Her family tried to scare cockatoos away with owl statues, to no avail. Then they tried to put bricks on the lids of the box, but the cockatoos learned to remove it. Finally, they drilled a lock into the box.

Matt Hodo, the cafe’s 42-year-old chef, said.

Nearby, 40-year-old Sky Jones said he resorted to an elastic rope to grab the lid of his trunk after the birds worked to remove a brick and then a larger rock.

“I have a feeling I’m going to go for a real lock,” he said. “It is only a matter of time.”

Frequent observations reveal that a single parrot can open the box by lifting the lid high with its beak while standing near the front edge.

Then, with the box lid still in its beak, it moves backward toward the hinge, pushing the lid up until it opens.

In a previous study, scientists found that knowledge of this technique spread with the emergence of other birds, creating local “traditions.”

Their new research shows that humans, frustrated by the spread of their litter across the street, have learned to adapt. But then the parrots did.

“When we first started looking at this behavior, we were really surprised that cockatoos had already learned how to open boxes,” said lead study author Barbara Klamp, a behavioral scientist at the Max Planck Institute in Germany.

As humans responded, she said, “I was really amazed at how many different methods people have invented.”

A postdoctoral research fellow said that when cockatoos learned to defeat some of the protections humans have, the two species appeared to be engaged in a “gradual progression and iteration.”

“That was the most interesting part for me.”

In a tally of 3,283 chests, the latest study found that some cockatoos can defeat low-level protection such as rubber snakes, which can be ignored, or bricks, which can be pushed away.

So far, though, the cockatoo hasn’t been able to overcome stronger methods such as a weight already attached to the lid or an object stuck in the hinge to prevent the box from opening completely.

“Bricks seem to be working for a while, but the beginners are getting very smart,” one resident told researchers in an online survey that attracted more than 1,000 participants.

Who wins the arms race?

“I think it’s going to be humans eventually,” Clamp said.

“But we need to know how it has evolved,” she added, explaining that it was easy to underestimate the work humans do in protecting their boxes each week, as some people were already relaxing when cockatoos were down.

It is unlikely that Ben’s conflict between species will lead to a new breed of more intelligent parrots.

“They have a certain ability to solve problems, and we know they are very curious and love to explore,” Clamp said. “But I don’t think protecting the boxes by itself will make cockatoos smarter.”

Despite the discomfort, many Stanwell Park residents say they have a soft spot for birds.

“We call them sky rats because they just love food,” said Kathryn Erskine, 48, owner of Uluwatu Blue Café in the town.

“It’s really pretty and loud – but I love it.”