In 2018, Australia's sulfur-crested cockatoos were seen opening trash bins to scavenge for food, a feat that did not thrill all residents living in the area but not ornithologist Richard Major from the Australian Museum Research Institute, who was impressed by the birds' ingenuity.
The bin-opening behavior is a unique feat for a bird to be able to grasp the bin lid with its beak to open and shuffle far enough in the bin's edge to look for food. Major teamed up with researchers in Germany to study how cockatoos learn this trick. In 2018, they found that three suburbs reported seeing this behavior, but it increased to 44 suburbs, St. Louis Post reported.
The team said that this unique foraging behavior of birds is an example of social learning, wherein they learn behaviors by copying others. The team published the findings of their paper, titled "Innovation and geographic spread of a complex foraging culture in an urban parrot," in Science.
Social Learning in Cockatoos in Australia
Behavioral ecologist and the paper's author Barbara Klump of the Max Planck Institute of Animal Behavior explain that social learning can be learned by birds, primates, and humans as it forms the basis of regional cultures.
Social learning is best manifested in kids as they copy their peers and adults to learn new skills. Likewise, some animals have also demonstrated learning by copying other animals or, in the cockatoos' case, humans.
When her colleague Major showed her a video clip of how the clever cockatoos in Australia open trash bins to scavenge for food, she was made by the unique foraging behavior of the birds. The video clip showed cockatoos opening the trash bin using their beaks and innovate a way to access the food inside the bins.
"It was so exciting to observe such an ingenious and innovative way to access a food resource," Daily Mail quoted Dr. Klump. "We knew immediately that we had to systematically study this unique foraging behavior," she continued.
Dr. Major commented that the sulfur-crested cockatoos are loud and aggressive, but their unique foraging behavior has proven that they are smart, persistent, and have adapted well to living with humans.
Moreover, it seemed that this behavior had spread quickly, which means it did not appear spontaneously. They marked some 500 cockatoos and found that 10% of them have learned the trick, in which most of them are males, but some of them wait for pioneers to open the bin before joining and forage food for themselves.
How Cockatoos Open Bins?
According to CNN's report, the unique foraging behavior that cockatoos in Australia demonstrated is a five-stage process for the birds to open the trash bins before they could eat.
First, cockatoos prey on the lid with its beak, and then it twists its neck sideways and hops to the edge of the bin. The bird then holds the lid open using its beak or foot before walking to the rim and finally flipping the lid open.
Since most trash bins in Australia have the same style, other cockatoos have learned this skill through copying others. Studies have shown in the past that urban adaptability correlates with innovation, behavioral flexibility, and exploration. Animals who easily transmit their new knowledge and skills socially also have an advantage.
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