You Can’t Help but Admire the Trash-Stealing Sulphur-Crested Cockatoos

You Can’t Help but Admire the Trash-Stealing Sulphur-Crested Cockatoos

Welcome to the first instalment of Gizmodo’s Animal Crime of the Week, a regular exploration of animals and their bad behaviour (but hey, it’s only natural). And what better place to start than by highlighting an animal crime ring so notorious that it’s now being intensively studied by scientists? Meet the trash-stealing cockatoo parrots.

For years, groups of sulphur-crested cockatoos in Sydney, Australia have been breaking into people’s bins and pilfering the glorious garbage within. The practice seems to have begun sometime before 2018, though only among birds in a few suburbs. Over time, however, the behaviour spread across Southern Sydney, with birds in different neighbourhoods slightly tweaking their methods of burglary. In some areas, for instance, the parrots would flip the trash lid open entirely, while in others the birds would just lift it up partway.

Non-human animals that socialize are thought to commonly share and shape learned behaviours among each other. But the birds’ adopted trash-picking habits seem to be one of the clearest examples of animal culture ever observed up close.

“Our [research] adds to the evidence that other animals have culture, and shows how new innovations can spread across populations to lead to new behaviours,” Lucy Aplin, an animal behaviour researcher at the Max Planck Institute whose team has been studying the birds for years, told Gizmodo in 2021.

Unfortunately, in this case, one cockatoo’s tasty treasure is another person’s turned-over trash. The emergence of this behaviour has led to a cultural clash between the parrots and their human neighbours, and a sort of arms race between the two has begun.

People have tried to stop the birds from breaking into bins by placing bricks on top of them, for instance, only for the birds to learn how to push them off. That in turn has led some people to adopt other anti-parrot measures, like specialized locks. Interestingly enough, the humans have started to mimic the birds by spreading the most effective tricks to one another.

Where this trash dispute will end, no one knows.

“One could imagine that it will continue to escalate (i.e. cockatoos learning to defeat higher-level protection types, and people coming up with even better devices to protect their bins) or it could be that one party ‘wins’ the arms race,” Barbara Klump, a behavioural ecologist at the Max Planck Institute, told Gizmodo in 2022.

Either way, it’s an elegant illustration of the unexpected ways that animals and humans can interact with each other.

Gizmodo Australia Editor’s Note: These cockatoos are in my so-called burn book, notorious for pooping on our cars and squawking at 5am, this trash stealing behaviour does not surprise me. 

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