For the first time, a team of international scientists has proven that cockatoos, an iconic Australian bird species, learn from each other a unique skill: lifting lids on garbage cans to collect food. The world’s first research published today in Science, confirms that cockatoos propagate this new behavior through social learning. Led by Barbara Klump and Lucy Aplin (Max Planck Institute of Animal Behavior), along with John Martin (Taronga Conservation Society) and Richard Major (Australian Museum), the team showed that cockatoo behavior is actually learned, rather than a result. genetics.
Co-lead author Barbara Klump said social learning is the basis of different regional cultures and some animals, such as primates and birds, seem to learn socially. “Children are the masters of social learning. From an early age, they copy the skills of other children and adults. However, compared to humans, there are few known examples of animals learning from each other. others, ”Klump said.
“Demonstrating that food-scavenging behavior is not due to genetics is a challenge,” Klump added.
However, a few years ago, Richard Major shared a video with lead author Lucy Aplin, showing a Sulfur-crested Cockatoo opening a closed trash can. The cockatoo used its beak and foot to lift the heavy cover, then moved along the side to turn it over, accessing a rich reward of leftover food.
Aplin, who was then doing research at the University of Oxford and has since moved to the Max Planck Institute for Animal Behavior in Germany, and Klump were fascinated by the images.
“It was so exciting to watch such a ingenious and innovative way to access a food resource, we immediately knew we had to systematically study this unique foraging behavior,” Klump said.
Major, a senior principal investigator at the Australian Museum Research Institute, has spent more than 20 years studying Australian bird species such as the noisy juvenile, the infamous ibis, and cockatoos.
“Like many Australian birds, Sulfur-crested Cockatoos are loud and aggressive and often act like a pack of galahs. But they’re also incredibly intelligent, persistent and have adapted brilliantly to life with humans,” Major said.
John Martin, a research scientist at the Taronga Conservation Society, who has worked alongside Major on many urban bird projects, explained how the research was conducted. “Australian garbage cans have a uniform design across the country, and Sulfur-crested Cockatoos are common across the east coast. The first thing we wanted to know is if cockatoos are opening trash cans everywhere. “
“In 2018, we launched an online survey in various parts of Sydney and Australia with questions such as’ What region are you from, have you seen this behavior before, and if so, when? The investigation lasted two years and helped us determine how the behavior spread to other cockatoos in Sydney. Above all, we will continue this investigation in 2021, ”said Martin.
At the end of 2019, residents of 44 neighborhoods had observed the behavior of opening trash cans, showing that it had spread quickly and widely. Further analysis of the survey results showed that the behavior reached neighboring districts faster than more distant districts, indicating that the new behavior did not appear randomly in Sydney.
“These results show that the animals really learned the behavior of other cockatoos nearby,” Klump said.
The researchers also marked around 500 cockatoos with small dots of paint at three selected hot spots to allow identification of individual birds, allowing researchers to observe which birds might open the trays. It turned out that only about ten percent could do this, most of whom were men. The others waited for the “pioneers” to open the trash cans and then help themselves.
There was one exception, however: in late 2018, a cockatoo from North Sydney reinvented the cleaning technique itself. Birds from neighboring neighborhoods then copied the behavior.
“We observed that birds do not open trash cans the same way, but instead use different opening techniques in different suburbs, suggesting that the behavior is learned by observing others,” Klump said.
Scientists interpreted the results as an emergence of regional subcultures.
Scientists hope their findings will also lead to a better understanding of animals living in urban settings.
“By studying this behavior with the help of local residents, we learn about the unique and complex bird cultures of their neighborhood,” Klump said.
Martin said residents of Sydney and Australia can continue to help research by participating in the Bin-Opening Survey and Big City Birds citizen science programs. Citizen science programs are available at these links: Survey on the opening of the bins; Birds of the big city.
This research was funded by grants from the National Geographic Society and the Max Planck Society.