But observing a new “cultural trend” spreading in the wild — or suburbs — in real time afforded the cockatoo researchers a special opportunity, said Lucy Aplin, a cognitive ecologist at Max Planck Institute of Animal Behavioral in Germany and co-author of the study. “This is a scientist’s dream,” she said.
A sulphur-crested cockatoo watches as another opens a trash can in Sydney, Australia.
During summer of 2019, trash collection day in suburban Sydney was the team’s research day. As garbage trucks rolled down their routes and people shoved bins to the curb, Max Planck Institute behavioral ecologist Barbara Klump drove around and stopped to record cockatoos landing on bins. Not all cockatoos succeeded in opening them, but she took around 160 videos of victorious efforts.
Analyzing the footage, Klump realized the vast majority of birds opening bins were males, which tend to be larger than females. The birds that mastered the trick also tended to be dominant in social hierarchies.
“This suggests that if you’re more socially connected, you have more opportunities to observe and acquire new behavior — and also to spread it,” she said.
Cockatoos are extremely gregarious birds that forage in small groups, roost in large ones, and are rarely seen alone in Sydney. While many animals have declined with the expansion of Australian cities, these bold and flamboyant birds generally have thrived.
“In an unpredictable, rapidly changing environment with unpredictable food sources, opportunistic animals thrive,” said Isabelle Laumer, a behavioral researcher at the University of California, Los Angeles, who was not involved in the research.