Parrots in Australia have learned to open bins from each other, research finds

23 Jul 2021

Sulphur-crested cockatoo opening a bin. Image: Barbara Klump/Max Planck Institute of Animal Behavior

Cockatoos have been the subject of scientific curiosity as their bin-searching shenanigans could demonstrate culture in animals.

The novels of Jane Austen. The plays of Shakespeare. The symphonies of Mozart. These all come to mind as remarkable examples of culture. What might not occur to us are parrots opening bins to get at your leftovers on a sunny continent down under.

But researchers have published a study in Science concerning cockatoos in Australia learning to open bins from one another, showing a clear example of animal culture.

Lead co-author Barbara Klump from the Max Plank Institute of Animal Behavior said social learning is the basis of different regional cultures, and some animals, such as primates and birds, appear to learn socially.

“Children are masters of social learning. From an early age, they copy skills from other children and adults. However, compared to humans, there are few known examples of animals learning from each other,” said Klump.

The problem of collecting good examples is the classic question of nature versus nurture. How do you show that food collecting behaviours aren’t genetic?

The foundations of the research were laid by Richard Major, who is a senior principal research scientist at the Australian Museum Research Institute and has spent more than 20 years studying Australian bird species such as the noisy minor, the ‘bin-chicken’ ibis and cockatoos.

He was fascinated by a video showing a sulphur-crested cockatoo in Sydney opening a closed rubbish bin. He then shared this video with Lucy Aplin, senior author of the new research.

In the footage, the cockatoo can be seen using its beak and foot to lift the lid and then shuffling along the side to flip it over, accessing the abundance of leftovers.

‘The first thing we wanted to find out is if cockatoos open bins everywhere’

Aplin passed this video of the parrot opening bins on to Klump, who was equally enthralled by the moment.

“It was so exciting to observe such an ingenious and innovative way to access a food resource, we knew immediately that we had to systematically study this unique foraging behaviour,” she said.

Dr John Martin, a research scientist at Taronga Conservation Society and frequent collaborator with Major, joined in the research to investigate the parrot’s culture.

“Australian garbage bins have a uniform design across the country, and sulphur-crested cockatoos are common across the entire east coast. The first thing we wanted to find out is if cockatoos open bins everywhere,” explained Martin.

“In 2018, we launched an online survey in various areas across Sydney and Australia with questions such as, ‘What area are you from, have you seen this behaviour before, and if so, when?’ The survey ran for two years and helped us determine how the behaviour spread to other cockatoos in Sydney. Importantly, we’ll be continuing this survey in 2021.”

By the end of 2019, residents from 44 areas had observed parrots opening bins, showing that the practice had spread.

Two sulfur-crested cockatoos are pictured by a bin. One parrot is opening the bin with his beak while the other parrot watches.

Two cockatoos opening a bin. Image:Barbara Klump/Max Planck Institute of Animal Behavior

Further analysis of the survey results showed that the behaviour reached neighbouring districts more quickly than districts further away, suggesting that it was being spread and learned.

The researchers also marked around 500 cockatoos with small paint dots at three selected spots to allow them to identify individual birds. This meant the researchers knew which birds could open bins and which ones were just watching.

It turned out that only around 10pc could do so, most of which were males. The rest waited until these leading parrots opened the bins to then join in the feast.

Importantly, the researchers observed one exceptional cockatoo. In a case of reinventing the wheel, this parrot created a new way of opening the bin. Birds in the neighbouring areas then copied this new scavenging technique.

“We observed that the birds do not open the garbage bins in the same way, but rather used different opening techniques in different suburbs, suggesting that the behaviour is learned by observing others,” said Klump.

While not quite a case of punk or goth parrots, the scientists interpreted the results as an emergence of a subculture.

The scientists hope that their findings of parrots opening bins can grant a broader understanding of urban-living animals.

“By studying this behaviour with the help of local residents, we are uncovering the unique and complex cultures of their neighbourhood birds,” said Klump.

Sam Cox was a journalist at Silicon Republic covering sci-tech news