Clever & Adaptable Down Under

A cockatoo did the work while others observed. Barbara Klump/Max Planck Institute of Animal Behavior

Watch the half-minute video accompanying this story and you will understand the words “clever” and “adaptable” in a new way:

Trash Parrots Invent New Skill in Australian Suburbs

Sydney’s clever and adaptable sulfur-crested cockatoos learn how to pry open garbage bins by watching one another.

You’ve heard of trash pandas: Raccoons raiding the garbage. How about trash parrots?

Sulfur-crested cockatoos, which may sound exotic to Americans and Europeans, are everywhere in suburban areas of Sydney. They have adapted to the human environment, and since they are known to be clever at manipulating objects it’s not entirely surprising that they went after a rich food source. But you might say that the spread of their latest trick, to open trash cans, blows the lid off social learning and cultural evolution in animals.

Not only do the birds acquire the skill by imitating others, which is social learning. But the details of technique evolve to differ in different groups as the innovation spreads, a mark of animal culture.

Barbara C. Klump, a behavioral ecologist at the Max Planck Institute of Animal Behavior in Germany, and the first author of a report on the cockatoo research in the journal Science, said, “It’s actually quite a complex behavior because it has multiple steps.”

Dr. Klump and her colleagues broke the behavior down into five moves. First a bird uses its bill to pry the lid from the container. Then, she said, “they open it and then they hold it and then they walk along one side and then they flip it over. And at each of these stages, there is variation.”…

Read the whole article here.

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