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Garbage over there, it’s done: Scientists learn how cockatoos learn to lift lids on garbage cans

WASHINGTON (AP) – A few years ago, a scientist in Sydney noticed a sulfur crested cockatoo opening its trash can. Not all residents would be delighted, but ornithologist Richard Major was impressed with the ingenuity.

It’s quite a feat for a bird to grab a bin lid with its beak, pop it open, then drag along the edge of the bin enough for the lid to fall back, revealing treasures of edible waste to inside.

Intrigued, Major teamed up with German researchers to study how many cockatoos learned this trick. In early 2018, they found from a survey of residents that birds in three Sydney suburbs had mastered the new foraging technique. At the end of 2019, the birds were lifting bins in 44 suburbs.

“From three suburbs to 44 in two years, it’s a pretty quick spread,” said Major, based at the Australian Museum.

The researchers’ next question was whether the cockatoos each figured out how to do this on their own – or if they had copied the strategy of experienced birds. And their research published Thursday in the journal Science concluded that birds learn primarily by observing their peers.

“This spread did not appear at random. It started in the southern suburbs and spread outward, ”Major said. Basically it took like a hot dance move.

Scientists have documented other examples of social learning in birds. A classic case involves small birds called blue tits who learned to pierce the aluminum lids of milk bottles in the UK from the 1920s – a clever move, though less complex and physically demanding than opening trash cans. .

But watching a new “cultural trend” spreading through nature – or suburbs – in real time has given cockatoo researchers a special opportunity, said Lucy Aplin, cognitive ecologist at the Max Planck Institute for Animal Behavior in Germany. and co-author of the study. . “It’s a scientist’s dream,” she said.

In the summer of 2019, garbage collection day in the Sydney suburbs was the team’s research day. As garbage trucks rolled down their roads and people pushed garbage cans on the sidewalk, Barbara Klump, behavioral ecologist at the Max Planck Institute, took the tour and stopped to record cockatoos landing on garbage cans. . Not all cockatoos managed to open them, but she took about 160 videos of victorious efforts.

Analyzing the images, Klump realized that the vast majority of birds opening the boxes were males, who tend to be larger than females. Birds that mastered the trick also tended to be dominant in social hierarchies.

“This suggests that if you are more socially connected, you have more opportunities to observe and learn new behaviors – and also to diffuse them,” she said.

Cockatoos are extremely gregarious birds that feed in small groups, roost in large groups, and are rarely seen alone in Sydney. While many animals declined with the expansion of Australian cities, these daring and flamboyant birds generally thrived.

“In an unpredictable and rapidly changing environment with unpredictable food sources, opportunistic animals thrive,” said Isabelle Laumer, a behavior researcher at the University of California, Los Angeles, who was not involved in the research.

Over the past decade, research has shown that “urban adaptability is correlated with characteristics such as innovation, behavioral flexibility and exploration,” said Aplin of the Max Planck Institute. What the new research adds to this understanding is that creatures that readily impart knowledge and new skills socially also have an advantage.

Parrots, which include cockatoos, are known to be among the most intelligent birds. They have brains the size of a walnut, but the density of neurons crammed into their forebrain gives many species cognitive abilities similar to those of great apes, said Irene Pepperberg, a researcher in animal cognition at Harvard, who studied African gray parrots and was not involved in the new journal.

While African Gray Parrots are known for their ability to mimic and sometimes understand human speech, cockatoos are renowned for using and manipulating new tools, such as puzzle boxes in the lab or trash can lids in the room. nature, she said.

“Everyone in Sydney has an opinion about cockatoos,” said the Australian Museum major. “Whether you enjoy watching these large, flaming social birds or think they are pests, you need to respect them. They have adapted so brilliantly to living with humans, to human domination over the environment.

Follow Christina Larson on Twitter: @larsonchristina

The Associated Press’s Department of Health and Science receives support from the Department of Science Education at Howard Hughes Medical Institute. The AP is solely responsible for all content.


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