Cockatoos become bin raiding menace

These intelligent birds are learning how to cooperate with each other to secure an easy meal...
07 October 2022

Interview with 

Barbara Klump, Max Plank Institute of Animal Behaviour




The suburbs of Sydney are playing host to an unlikely battle of wits. Residents putting their bins out for collection have found themselves confronted by hungry cockatoos eager to open up the bins and help themselves to the leftovers. To deter bin-raiding, locals are resorting to increasingly complicated ways to safeguard their trash, but the indefatigable cockatoos are just working out how to get around them, and teaching each other into the bargain! Cockatoos are one of the most intelligent bird species and can copy an action after viewing it only once. Indeed their bin raiding antics have spread through the suburbs so quickly that now commercially-available cockatoo locks are doing a roaring retail trade! Will Tingle spoke with Barbara Klump, from the Max Planck Institute of Animal Behaviour who’s been following the arms race, on both sides: people sharing defense ideas, and birds sharing plans of attack…

Barbara - Over time more people protect their bins but also more people escalate the method they're using from more low level protection to higher levels of protection. This was in direct response to the cocaktoos solving some of the methods. So we think that this might be the beginning of what we call like an innovations arms race where one species changes the behaviour in response to what the other species is doing.

Will - There have been cases of arms races between two species in the natural world. You've got your bats and your moths, you've got your netws and your garter snakes. But these cases are more arms race based on evolutionary adaptations and physiological changes. So is this the first case that we've seen of an arms race based on behavioural changes?

Barbara - So I don't know whether it's the first case of a behavioural arms race, but it's certainly the best documented I would say. Because when we look through the literature, we were actually quite surprised how little there was. So there's mention that it might be happening between killer whales and their prey. And then of course lots of like anecdotal observations where people have told me they have like their personal arms races with the squirrels that try to get into their bird feeders. There is definitely this interaction happening, but I think it hasn't been studied in detail so far. But I think it would be very interesting to study this in other species as well because as you say, most arms races that we know of are on these like really large evolutionary time scales, but with like behavioural or innovations, arms races, this happens much, much faster. And that allows us to also like study it in much more detail. And I think it could be a really fruitful like future research avenue.

Will - Do you see the amount of arms races that humans are gonna be involved in in terms of wildlife interactions changing in the future?

Barbara - I could imagine that it will increase just because cities expand and we will share more and more of our space with wild animals. So that naturally also increases the chances for human wildlife conflict, but it also increases the chances where such arms races can develop and then can be observed and studied. So I would imagine that it will increase in the future.

Will - And how do you see this one ending? Do you think cockatoos are going to win or do you think humans have managed to lock them out?

Barbara - That's a very interesting question and I don't know. So currently we know that the cockatoos can open some, but not all, of the protection devices that people have come up with. But that doesn't mean that they won't learn to defeat them in the future. And I think there's so many other factors that play into this arms race as well that, yeah, make it quite difficult to make a prediction. But I can tell you that I'm super excited to find out in the future.


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