The Kings of Transcription: How does a cockatoo learn from its species?

Other animal species with long life expectancies and very large brains such as crows, great apes, and whales also practice what is known as foraging for cultured food. For example, chimpanzees taught each other new ways to crack nuts. “Of course the parrots were also expected to meet the necessary requirements. Until now we had no evidence of this,” Barbara Clamp explains.

Cultivation behavior in wild parrots is difficult to observe. Good research has been done on their captive species, such as Alex’s African gray parrot, which has an average IQ of a three-year-old. But in the wild, it is not easy to tell what normal behavior is and how it is affected by other factors.

Because yellow-tipped parrots regularly visited the same litter cans on their own, they provided Barbara Clamp with an ideal research environment for studying the cheeky city fowl.

How do parrots open trash cans?

Attractive parrots, measuring an average of 50 cm in size with white plumage and a bright yellow undercoat, are not only at home in eastern Australia but also on the neighboring Pacific islands. Unlike the other 350 known species of parrots, the population of yellow-peaked cockatoos is growing steadily – especially in urban areas. There, however, they are often seen as pests, among other things due to their desire to destroy, for example when they gnaw on balconies.

Timothy Wright, a biologist at New Mexico State University in Las Cruces, studies the vocal learning of parrots and was not involved in the study. While the discovery that birds can learn socially, he says, isn’t entirely a surprise, it does show that parrots are exceptionally intelligent beings.

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“I like to call parrots the most humane bird,” he says. “Here we have more evidence that this assessment is correct.”

social learning system

In the mid-2010s, reports increased of macaws opening trash cans in Sydney’s southern suburbs. “The particularly interesting thing was that trash cans and birds were basically everywhere – but this particular behavior was hard to notice,” says Barbara Clamp.

In order to be able to research it anyway, she and her team created an online survey targeting residents in the Greater Sydney area and in the suburbs and towns of the Wollongong metropolitan area. They asked residents to report if they saw a cockatoo opening trash cans in their area.

As part of the first survey in 2018, residents from three southern villages came forward and observed how the birds raised trash can lids with their beaks and claws. And when the survey was returned in 2019, the number had risen to 44 towns. Transferring survey data to a map showed that the birds’ ability spread in a predictable pattern. According to Barbara Clamp, this is a clear indication that opening trash cans is not random, but a learned behavior.

Photo Gallery: Because of the bird’s brain! What can birds do?

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