Clever cockatoos learn to open Sydney wheelie bins and drink from bubblers

Sulphur-crested cockatoos’ ‘novel behaviour’ in Australia’s urban environments is being mapped by researchers

Sulphur-crested cockatoos that have learned to open wheelie bins and turn on taps are the focus of a group of researchers who have appealed to the public to help document the birds’ behaviour.

Ecologists from the University of Sydney and the Max Planck Institute of Ornithology have been observing the cockatoos across Sydney parks and gardens and are using an online survey to map the behaviours across the country.

Dr Barbara Klump from the Max Planck Institute of Ornithology said they were studying which birds could adopt these behaviours and how they did it.

“The really big question … is why they are such good urban adapters.”

Klump said some cockatoos had been spotted in western Sydney drinking from public bubbler taps and wanted to know whether the birds were doing the same thing in drought-stricken parts of NSW.

Dr John Martin, an honorary associate at the University of Sydney, said the study also examines the social hierarchy of flocks, cognitive abilities and information transfer.

Some cockatoos in Sydney have been marked with coloured paint dots to help researchers identify them easily.

“Then we can look at their social interactions,” Martin said.

“We’re looking at how the birds might be having a fight, or preening each other, looking at those relationships, and also with respect to their age and if they are a breeding bird.”

Martin acknowledged some people are not impressed by the cockatoos’ nuisance behaviour.

Cockatoo removing brick to open wheelie bin.

“It’s unique behaviour [bin opening] and even though it is annoying people, understanding how this behaviour evolves and how it persists in a population is quite interesting from a cognitive perspective,” he said.

“They potentially started foraging from overfilled bins and then the bird had to go ‘can we open these bins?’. So it’s quite a leap of intelligence, if you think about it in that context. It’s quite a novel behaviour.”

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Researchers are keen to work out if the birds are using different techniques in different areas to open the bins.

“If this is [also] happening in Brisbane or Melbourne, that’s really interesting because it’s quite clearly an example of this behaviour evolving in a different area, because we know cockatoos are not moving on that large scale across the landscape,” Martin said.

Martin said corellas, another bird species known for destructive behaviours, haven’t learned the bin opening techniques, to researchers’ knowledge.

Footage shows a sulphur-crested cockatoo pulling off bird guard spikes in Australia
Footage shows a sulphur-crested cockatoo pulling off bird guard spikes. Photograph: Facebook

More unusual cockatoo behaviour during fieldwork obs. for #CleverCockieProject. This chick (centre) was being preened by its parents, but other birds kept trying to muscle in and preen it too -clearly much to the annoyance of the parents! @Wingtags @animaltracking @julia_penndorf

— Lucy Aplin (@LucyMAplin) July 10, 2019

Have you seen a painted cockatoo?

“Yes” & you live near Mosman or Northbridge please send me a picture by direct message. Your involvement will assist @julia_penndorf PhD research Thanks!

We’ve marked birds to allow us to identify individual behaviours #clevercockieproject

— John Martin (@Wingtags) September 1, 2019

In July, footage of a rebellious cockatoo triumphing over bird spikes on a building in the Blue Mountains went viral on social media. The dancing antics of Snowball the cockatoo have also captivated the internet.

The sulphur-crested cockatoo placed 11th in the Guardian/Bird Life Australia 2017 Australian bird of the year poll, receiving 2.7% of the vote. Voting on 2019 poll will open in October.


Lisa Martin

The GuardianTramp

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