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Oh Flock... Clever Cockatoos Are More Culturally Complex Than We Thought


A few years back, Richard Major saw something strange happening at a trash bin near his home in Sydney.

RICHARD MAJOR: I made this observation of a cockatoo flipping open a bin to get in and get some food out of it, which I thought was an interesting innovation.

CHANG: A cockatoo, he explains, is a big, white Australian parrot.

MAJOR: With this yellow, unkempt hairdo on the top, this big yellow crest. They're really in-your-face, and they're just full of life and mischief.


And as an ecologist who spent his life studying Australian birds, Major was intrigued.

MAJOR: I wasn't really expecting cockatoos to be rubbish bin feeders. They're not scavengers. These are good, self-respecting plant feeders.

KELLY: He sent a video to colleagues in Germany.

BARBARA KLUMP: And we were super-amazed by it.

KELLY: Barbara Klump is a behavioral ecologist at the Max Planck Institute.

KLUMP: The cockatoos make it look very easy, but it's a very complex behavioral sequence.

CHANG: So the scientists and their colleagues began surveying Sydney residents. Had they seen cockatoos raiding their garbage? And over several years, they saw the behaviour spread from three suburbs to 44.

KELLY: After some computer analysis of how that behavior spread, they determined the birds were learning from each other. A culture of trash can break-ins was radiating out from that first bird who had a lightbulb moment.

CHANG: Next, they filmed hundreds of cockatoos doing this in different parts of Sydney.

KLUMP: First they pry, and then they open, and how they hold it and walk along the rim. And then they flip it over.

CHANG: And they found regional flourishes in how birds in different suburbs opened the lids.

KLUMP: We call them subcultures. There's regional differences in how things are done.

MAJOR: And those cultures have been learnt socially. So that's a demonstration that the birds are learning from each other.

CHANG: Their work appears today in the journal Science.

KELLY: All that time observing the birds was not without consequences for Klump.

KLUMP: In one suburb, I found out only after weeks that I was a sensation on the local Facebook group. I was, like, the crazy bird lady.

KELLY: But she's not going to let that stop her. Klump has already got her next study in mind.

CHANG: She says unsurprisingly, humans don't really love big, messy parrots raiding their trash, so people in Sydney are devising anti-parrot innovations to keep them out.

KLUMP: So how do the humans adapt to the cockatoos figuring out how to open the bins? And then how do the cockatoos adapt to the people trying to stop them?

KELLY: She says an evolutionary arms race is underway, and she'll be right there to observe.

(SOUNDBITE OF PANTHURR SONG, "WOOF, PT. 1") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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