Yellow-peaked cockatoos learn from each other how to open trash cans to steal food. This is a typical sign of ‘social learning behaviour’, as German and Australian biologists have written Sciences. Cockatoos learn the new skill through imitation. This allows the trick to spread quickly over a large area.
Peer learning is often a sign of highly developed cognition. It touches on the cultural intelligence hypothesis, which is that animal culture is associated with larger brain size and stronger social behavior. This applies to primates and cetaceans, as well as to cockatoos and other parrots.
yellow crested parrot (Kakatoa Galerita) lives in eastern Australia, mostly in urban areas. The birds are widespread, including in the suburbs of Sydney. Relatively little is known about the eating and learning behavior of this specific species, but in recent years, more and more individual reports have been received of parrots opening the lids of large plastic litter boxes – similar to Dutch rolling buckets – with their beaks, and looting their contents. Prior to 2018, this only happened occasionally in three locations.
The researchers then decided to systematically collect data on this new trick for two years. In 478 Australian boroughs, they asked residents if they had seen a cockatoo opening trash cans, and if so, where and when. At least one cockatoo was reported opening a container in 88.8 percent of nearly 2,000 reports. There was always more than one cockatoo on site, which makes it easy to imitate the behavior.
The regions where parrot box opening increased most frequently were found near the locations where the behavior was also occurring prior to 2018. So those were the regions of origin.
Roughly speaking, the opening is more or less the same in all locations: the parrot grabs the cap with its beak and lifts it up a little with the help of its legs. Then, while letting the edge of the lid slide through its beak, it walks toward the hinge point, causing the lid to open and allow it to search through the container undisturbed. However, “subcultures” can be noted: in different places the behavior has nuances. Remarkably, it is male cockatoos that open trash cans, perhaps because they are stronger than females – lifting the lid is a difficult task. High-ranking dominant males also occasionally hunt some species. In general, younger birds of lower social standing are better at learning than certain species, so they will have to stay close to see the trick.
The only other species of bird known to open buckets is the New Zealand kea (Great Nestor), which is also similar to a parrot. It is sometimes claimed that this species is the smartest bird in the world. There, too, it was the male kyats who set their sights on litter boxes. Amalia Bastos, who studies the behavior of sackbirds and other birds at the University of Auckland in New Zealand, calls the name SciencesVery interesting post. “It shows not only that cockatoos come up with creative ways of getting food, but also that they can learn by looking at each other. With keas, opening trash cans was more of a trick they figured out themselves, although we know from zoos that they can learn socially.”
A version of this article also appeared on NRC on the morning of August 3, 2021
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