New research shows that parrots are able to teach each other how to open litter boxes placed by residents.
Scientists have said the crested sulfur cockatoo called Sydney suburbs has a knack for getting into litter and can learn the trick by watching its peers.
People in Australia had to come up with innovative devices to keep them away, which led to something of an arms race.
“When I first saw a video of the cockatoo opening the boxes, I thought it was an interesting and unique behavior, and I knew we needed to look at it,” said study lead author Dr. Barbara Klamp, a behavioral ecologist at the Max Planck Institute for Animal Behavior.
And German researchers, impressed by their ingenuity, studied how many caught the trick.
The team documented this phenomenon in three suburbs and found that it spread to 44 other suburbs.
The cockatoo is a type of parrot known for its intelligence. Tests have shown that they are smarter than young children.
After analyzing videos of 160 birds flying their box lids, and by assessing geographic spread, Dr. Clamp and colleagues realized that what they had learned the most was watching others.
It’s a very skilful job for the birds, who have to grab the lid of the trash can and open their beaks.
Then they have to move far enough along the edge of the basket that the lid falls back, revealing the edible treasures inside. Cockatoos are driven by food waste.
“They really like bread,” said Dr. Clamp. “As soon as one opens the box, all the cockatoos in the vicinity will come and try to get something nice to eat.”
Usually birds open the boxes with their beaks and then rotate themselves on a small ledge and flip the lid open.
Dr. Clamp said: “We can actually show that this is a cultural trait. Cockatoos learn behavior by observing other cockatoos and within each group they sort of have their own style, so across a wide geographical range the techniques are more different.”
In one litter collection day, they photographed about 160 successful bird attempts.
They were mostly male, who tend to be larger than females and are also likely to be dominant in social hierarchies.
“This suggests that if you are more socially connected, you have more opportunities to observe and acquire new behavior, as well as to propagate it,” Dr. Clamp said.
Locals simply cannot secure the container lids completely closed because the lids need to be opened when tilted by a robotic arm in a garbage truck.
A survey conducted by the team found that people placed bricks and stones on the lids of their containers and attached water bottles to the top.
They also forged ropes to prevent the cap from flipping, and used sticks to fend off the hinges, but had to switch tactics once the cockatoo spotted them.
Dr. Clamp said: “There are even commercially available locks for parakeets for tins. It is not just social education on the parrot side but also social learning on the human side.
“People are creating new methods of protection themselves, but a lot of people are actually learning them from their neighbors or people on their streets, so they are getting inspiration from someone else.”
Dr. Clamp didn’t say who she expects to win the race to dominate the chests. But the researchers plan to look at how cockatoos’ behavior varies from season to season.
She expects to see more of these types of human-wildlife interactions in the future.
Dr. Clamp added: “As cities expand, we will have more interactions with wildlife. I hope there will be a better understanding and more tolerance towards the animals we share our lives with.”
Scientists have documented other examples of social learning in birds, such as the blue tits that learned to puncture milk bottle caps in the UK, starting in the 1920s.
Cockatoos are very group birds that feed in small groups, live in large groups, and are rarely seen alone.
While many animals have declined with the expansion of Australian cities, these bold and cheerful birds have generally thrived.
The study published in the journal current biology, adds to their reputation. Cockatoos are among the most sought after pets in the world due to their characteristics.
Parrots can memorize human speech and be able to listen and give responses to their owners.