Avian Expert Articles

Wild Cockatoos Teach Each Other The Art Of Bin Scavenging

sulfur-crested cockatoos
photo by Barbara Klump/Max Planck Institute of Animal Behavior

You know your bird is smart. You’ve seen it in action so many times. Often with that, you can watch their well-thought-out mischief occurring. This is especially true when a bird wants something that is not readily available to them. And as we have learned in the past (or you’ve seen with your own eyes), birds have worked extraordinarily hard to learn the varying methods of acquisition.

In 2018 in the Australian city of Sydney, scientist Richard Major of the Australian Museum saw a sulfur-crested cockatoo opening a garbage bin with a five-step process that involved feet and beak. With this process, the bird was able to gain access to any discarded foods that may have been inside the bin. The scientist was able to video the bird and took it to peers at the Max Planck Institute of Animal Behavior in Germany. The finding was interesting enough to warrant an in-depth study to determine if genetics is the engine of this behavior, or if it is a learned process.

Led by Barbara Klump, and Lucy Aplin (Max Planck Institute), assisted by John Martin (Taronga Conservation Society) and the previously mentioned Richard Major, the study was intended to uncover the cause of the new scavenging ability amply exhibited by these cockatoos in Sydney. As it is, animals typically do not learn from each other but rather operate due to genetic instinct. With these cockatoos, it was discovered that they not only learned the difficult art of opening a bin but passed the trick on to others of their kind. The ability proliferated until the city was filled with birds that understood the skillset needed to scavenge for food inside closed bins.

Hard to Stop a Clever ‘Too!

Back in 2018, a circulating poll revealed that birds in just three suburbs were displaying the ability to open a bin. Just two years later, that number had increased to include 41 more suburbs of Sydney where cockatoos could nimbly pop open a bin’s difficult-to-handle lid. The problem for the scientists was to determine if this was indeed a ‘pass along’ skill or if birds were just responding to a trait that had been untapped. As it probably happened, it was a single observant bird watching a human open a lid. After enough times, the bird worked hard to perfect the technique, with success as the payoff.

Soon enough, birds observed their pals opening a lid and learned the skill as well. Eventually, a city full of cockatoos mastered the ability. One caught the eye and interest of previously mentioned Richard Major. The exotic bird had grabbed the lid with their feet, lifted it, and grabbed it more securely with its beak. It would then walk along the rim of the container enduring the weight of the lid working against gravity to eventually be able to fling the lid back allowing access to the “treasures” inside the bin.

Social learning is a skill learned by humans and some animals – but not many animals can pick up this art of continuance. The scientists published their findings of this rare and amazing learned behavior of the sulfur-crested cockatoos in the Science journal in July.

What shall be next?!



4 thoughts on “Wild Cockatoos Teach Each Other The Art Of Bin Scavenging

  1. I think those sulfur-crested Cockatoos are just displaying how smart some species of birds are. Has it been documented what
    their intelligence level relates to in a child’s age group?

  2. I loved your story and as an owner of an umbrella cockatoo, an amazing intelligent, problem solving bird with lots of patience.

  3. Our cockatoo taught himself to use the key and unlock the padlock on our female bird’s cage so he could visit. Very clever guy who also loved to steal Tiptree Little Scarlet Strawberry jam from the breakfast table. Excellent taste.

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