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Cockatoos that open the tank join in ‘arms race’ with humans

A sulfur-crested cockatoo navigates through a block on a container lid. Credit: Barbara Klump

Australia’s cunning cockatoos appear to have entered an “innovation arms race” with humans, scientists say, as the two species spar over the waste in roadside bins.

The white birds, which can grow almost as long as a human arm, initially surprised researchers by devising an ingenious technique for breaking open the lids of household garbage cans in Sydney and other areas.

Now, a new study says they’ve gone a step further by thwarting the escalating defenses of tired humans.

Bird and human behavior may reveal a hitherto untapped “interspecies innovation arms race,” according to a study published Monday in Current Biology.

Nestled between a forest and a surf-strewn beach and bordered by cliffs, the picturesque town of Stanwell Park near Sydney is at the forefront of the battle for the bins.

“If we don’t close the bin right after we throw out the trash, they’ll be there,” said Ana Culic, 21, manager of the city’s Loaf Cafe.

“Cockatoos everywhere. Like, just crap all over the front.”

Her own family had tried unsuccessfully to scare away cockatoos with owl statues. Then they tried to put stones on the lids of the tank, but the cockatoos learned to remove them. Finally, they drilled a lock in the trash.

“They’re evolving. Yeah, like going back five to 10 years ago, they didn’t know how to open trash cans, so they’re figuring things out,” said 42-year-old Matt Hoddo, the cafe’s executive chef. .

Sulphur-crested cockatoo successfully pushes off a rock to open the lid of a garbage can. Credit: Barbara Klump/Current Biology

Flip the lid

Nearby, 40-year-old resident Skie Jones said he resorted to an elastic cord to hold the lid of his household bin after the birds figured out how to remove a brick and then a larger rock.

“I feel like I’m going for a real lock,” he said. “It’s only a matter of time.”

Frequent sightings show that a single cockatoo can open a container by holding the lid up with its beak while standing near the leading edge.

Then, with the lid of the bin still in its beak, it shuffles backwards toward the hinge, raising the lid until it flips open.

The scientists found in a previous study that knowledge of this technique spread while other birds watched, creating local “traditions.”

Their new research shows that frustrated with the fact that their waste was scattered on the street, people learned to adapt. But then so did the cockatoos.

“When we first started looking at this behavior, we were already amazed because the cockatoos learned how to open the bins,” said lead author Barbara Klump, a behavioral scientist at the Max Plank Institute in Germany.

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

As the cockatoos learned to beat some of the protections of humans, the two species appeared to be engaged in a “stepwise progression and recurrence,” the postdoctoral researcher said.

“That was the most interesting part for me.”

In a count of 3,283 bins, the latest study found that some cockatoos could beat low-level protection, such as rubber hoses, which could be ignored, or rocks, which could be pushed away.

Until now, however, the cockatoos had failed to overcome stronger methods, such as a weight actually attached to the lid or an object inserted into the hinge to prevent the tray from opening completely.

“Bricks seemed to work for a while, but cockies got too smart,” one resident told the researchers in an online survey that drew more than 1,000 participants.

‘Rats of the Sky’

Who will win the arms race?

“I think in the end it will be the people,” Klump said.

“But we’ll have to see how it develops,” she added, explaining that it was easy to underestimate the work people have to do each week to protect their bins, with some people slacking off all of their vigilance when the cockatoo activity decreased.

However, the battle of different species is unlikely to lead to a new breed of even smarter cockatoos.

“They have a certain ability to solve problems, and we know they’re super curious and like to explore,” Klump said. “But I don’t think protecting the bins in itself will make the cockatoos smarter.”

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

“We call them the rats of the sky because they just love food,” said Katherine Erskine, 48, owner of the city’s Uluwatu Blue cafe.

“They’re beautiful and they’re really noisy, but I love them.”

In Australia, cockatoos and humans are in an arms race for access to waste

More information:
Does opening trays in cockatoos lead to an innovative arms race with humans? Current Biology (2022). DOI: 10.116/j.cub.2022.08.008 , www.cell.com/current-biology/f … 0960-9822(22)01285-4

© 2022 AFP

Quote: Tank-opening cockatoos enter ‘arms race’ with humans (2022, September 17) retrieved September 17, 2022 from https://phys.org/news/2022-09-bin-opening-cockatoos-arms-humans .html

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