Parrots have often attracted attention due to their intelligence and ability to learn. Biologists in Australia have once again discovered evidence of these parrots’ intelligence: Sydney’s yellow-peaked cockatoo has learned to open the lids of trash cans to get to food scraps. Close examination revealed that the birds had copied the trick from each other. In this way, these parrots display social learning – a skill that has so far been observed in a few species in the animal kingdom.
For a long time, birds were seen as less intelligent – also because their brains are built differently than those of higher mammals. But in recent years, some intelligent birds, including crows and parrots, have taught biologists better. Through experiments, they were able to show that these birds make and use tools, form societies with a complex social structure and also learn from each other. “There are so far only a few known examples of animals learning from each other,” explains Barbara Klamp from the Max Planck Institute for Animal Behavior in Konstanz.
Opening the rope with the beak and the foot
One such example is the Yellow Crested Macaw (Cacatua galerita) native to the east coast of Australia. The starting point for this discovery was the observation made by biologist Richard Major of the Australian Museum: he photographed one of these parrots opening a closed litter box: the cockatoo used its beak and feet to lift the heavy cover. Then run along the side toward the hinge to flip the lid over and easily access the leftovers inside the box. “Like many Australian birds, the yellow-peaked cockatoo is loud and aggressive. But they are also incredibly smart and persistent and have adapted very well to living with people,” says Major.
This prompted Clumb and her team to investigate more closely how common this behavior is in yellow-crowned cockatoos and whether the birds can copy this trick from each other. “It was so exciting to see such an innovative and innovative way of accessing a food source that we knew right away that we wanted to systematically investigate this unique behavior,” says Klomp. That’s why they started an online survey in 2018 in which they wanted to know who saw parrots opening trash cans and where. Over two years, 1,396 reports were compiled, including 338 sightings of open-barrel parrots. “The study helped us understand how the behavior spread to other Sydney cockatoos,” explains co-author John Martin of the Taronga Conservation Society.
Rapid spread by copy
Assessments showed that before 2018, only cockatoos were spotted opening trash cans in three districts of Sydney, at the end of 2019 there were reports from 44 districts. So this trick quickly and widely spread among skilled cockatoos. Geographical spread also showed that cockatoos in neighboring regions had adopted this technique earlier than those in more distant regions. “These results show that the animals actually learned their behavior from other cockatoos in their environment,” Clamp says. Additional observations showed that only a portion of the cockatoo in the group had mastered the opening technique, and most of them were the stronger males. The rest waited until these “pioneers” opened the trash cans to help themselves.
Also interesting: at the end of 2018, a cockatoo in north Sydney reinvented the looting technique for himself. Then the birds in the vicinity imitated his behavior. “We’ve noticed that birds don’t open trash cans the same way everywhere, but use different opening techniques in different suburbs,” Clamb reports. By copying various technologies, regional subcultures were created. Overall, these observations show that the yellow-billed cockatoo is one of the few animals to date that has shown this ability for social learning and cultural transmission.
Source: Max Planck Society; Art article: science, doi: 10.1126/science. abe7808
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