Humans and cockatoos are in an ‘arms race’ over garbage in Sydney

A cockatoo trying to push the brick placed to keep it away from the litter it craves.

A cockatoo trying to push the brick placed to keep it away from the litter it craves.
Photo: Barbara Klump

In Sydney, Australia, man and bird are in a fierce battle for the most precious resource: garbage. In recent years, a team of scientists have studied sulphur-crested cockatoo parrots in the area who have learned, and even taught other parrots, how to steal garbage containers. And in new research on Monday, the team says humans have now started devising their own methods of keeping birds away, with varying degrees of success.

Researchers at the Max Planck Institute for Animal Behavior in Germany have long been interested in deciphering the inner workings of animals around the world. Last year they published a deep dive into the litter-stealing habits of Sydney’s Sulphur-crested Cockatoos. They found that the practice appeared to be an example of animal culture: a learned behavior that spread from birds in three suburbs to all of South Sydney. As the technique spread from neighborhood to neighborhood, the local cockatoos developed slight variations in behavior, such as lifting the lid of the container to open it all the way or not, something that happens quite often in human culture (think of how the different local cultures produce their own varieties of cheese).

The researchers told Gizmodo last year that they were now interested in documenting the human side of this fight. And that is just what they have done in their new newspaper, published Monday in the journal Current Biology.

Image for article titled Humans and cockatoos are locked in an 'arms race' over garbage

Photo: Barbara Klump

“When we collected data for the original study describing cockatoo behavior when opening containers, I saw that some people had placed devices in their containers to protect them from cockatoos, and I was amazed at the variety of different measures they came up with. . So I really wanted to investigate the human response to cockatoos,” lead author Barbara Klump, a behavioral ecologist at the Max Planck Institute, told Gizmodo in an email.

To do this, they surveyed people who live in neighborhoods besieged by these birds. A major obstacle to any potential cockatoo trick is that containers they are designed to open and spill their contents when lifted by the automated arm of garbage trucks, which means they cannot be kept completely sealed. But that hasn’t stopped people from coming up with a variety of methods, such as putting bricks and stones on the lids, attaching water bottles to lid handles with cable ties, or using sticks to lock hinges. Now there are even commercially available locks that are supposed to open when harvest time arrives (one such product can be seen here).

Unfortunately for humans, cockatoos have learned to beat some of the simplest measures. But as birds are adapting, people are developing counterattacks. As the researchers put it, the parrots and the people of Sydney appear to be engaged in something of an innovation “arms race,” though Klump refused to describe it as an all-out war.

“When cockatoos learn to overcome this protective measure (eg, by pushing the bricks so they can then open the container), people in our survey reported increasing the effectiveness of their protective measures (eg, fixing something heavy on the lid, so that it cannot be pushed). What we have found is that container protection (and types of protection) are geographically clustered and that people learn about them from their neighbors,” Klump said.

The entire saga, the researchers say, may be a preview of the kind of increasingly common human-wildlife interactions we can expect as we continue to build our largest cities and encroach on wildlife habitats. Some animals, like these parrots, can find new ways to adapt to our presence, but many others will not. And sometimes these interactions can be harmful to humans, such as with the emergence of new zoonotic infectious diseases.

What exactly will happen next is anyone’s guess. “One could imagine that it will continue to increase (ie cockatiels learning to defeat higher level types of protection and people devising even better devices to protect their containers) or it could be that one side ‘wins’ the arms race.” Klump said.

For their part, the team plans to further study the underlying learning mechanisms that led these cockatoos to become proficient scavengers, and hope to document how adept they can become at solving the latest countermeasures meant to keep them away from their treasure trove. trash.

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