The simplest grammar, long thought to be one of the skills that separate man from beast, can be taught to a common songbird, new research suggests.
A few years ago, a Sydney scientist with the Australia Museum noticed a sulphur-crested cockatoo opening his rubbish bin. Not every resident would be thrilled but ornithologist Richard Major was impressed by the ingenuity.
It is quite a feat for a bird to grasp a bin’s flip lid with its beak, prise it open, then shuffle far enough along the edge of the container so that the lid falls backwards, revealing the edible treasures inside.
Intrigued, Major teamed up with researchers in Germany to study how many cockatoos had learned the trick.
In early 2018, they found from a survey of residents that birds in three Sydney suburbs had mastered the foraging technique. By the end of 2019, birds were lifting bins in 44 suburbs.
“From three suburbs to 44 in two years is a pretty rapid spread,” said Major.
The researchers’ next question was whether the cockatoos had figured out how to do this alone – or whether they had copied the strategy from more experienced birds.
And their research published on Thursday in the journal Science concluded the birds mostly learned by watching their peers.
“That spread wasn’t just popping up randomly. It started in southern suburbs and radiated outwards,” said Major.
‘A scientist’s dream’
Scientists have documented other examples of social learning in birds. One classic case involves small birds called blue tits that learned to puncture the foil lids of milk bottles in the United Kingdom starting in the 1920s – a crafty move but considerably less complex and physically demanding than opening trash bins.
But observing a new “cultural trend” spreading in the wild – or suburbs – in real-time afforded the cockatoo researchers a special opportunity, says Lucy Aplin, a cognitive ecologist at Max Planck Institute of Animal Behavior in Germany and co-author of the study.
“This is a scientist’s dream,” she said.
During the summer of 2019, rubbish collection day in suburban Sydney was the team’s research day.
As bin trucks rolled down their routes and people took their bins to the pavement, Max Planck Institute behavioural ecologist Barbara Klump drove around the streets stopping to record the occasions when cockatoos landed on the bins. Not all cockatoos succeeded in opening them but she managed to take about 160 videos of birds that had been successful.
Analysing the footage, Klump realised the vast majority of birds that opened the 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 behaviour – and also to spread it,” she said.
New research reveals that a cockatoo flipping a bin-lid is a far more significant behaviour than first thought – watch out for these clever cockies!@DrBarbaraKlump @LucyMAplin @Wingtags @wild_sonja @NoisyMajor @CBehav @MPI_animalbehav @tarongazoo @austmus https://t.co/nVerByvQT7
— AMRI (@AustmusResearch) July 22, 2021
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 behavioural researcher at the University of California, Los Angeles, who was not involved in the research.
Over the past 10 years, research has shown that “urban adaptability is correlated with traits like innovativeness, behavioural flexibility and exploration,” said Max Planck Institute’s Aplin. What the new research adds to that understanding is that creatures that easily transmit knowledge and new skills socially also have an advantage.
Parrots – which include cockatoos – are known for being among the most clever birds. They have a brain that is only the size of a walnut but the density of neurons packed into their forebrains gives many species cognitive abilities similar to great apes, said Irene Pepperberg, an animal cognition researcher at Harvard, who has studied African grey parrots and was not involved in the new paper.
While African grey parrots are known for their ability to mimic and sometimes comprehend human speech, cockatoos are famously adept at using and manipulating new tools, such as puzzle boxes in the lab or bin lids in the wild, she said.
“Everyone in Sydney has an opinion about cockatoos,” said the Australian Museum’s Major.
“Whether you love to watch these big flamboyant social birds, or think they’re a pest, you have to respect them. They’ve adapted so brilliantly to living with humans, to human domination of the environment.”