Clever Cockatoos use Social Learning to Open Garbage Cans

Scientists have now demonstrated that cockatoos learn from each other.  In this case it is learning a unique skill — lifting garbage bin lids to gather food. The new systematic study confirms that cockatoos spread this novel behavior through social learning. (Meaning this behavior is actually learned, rather than a result of genetics.)


Study overview

In 2018, the scientists launched an online survey in various areas across Sydney and Australia with questions such as, ‘What area are you from, have you seen this behavior before, and if so, when?’ The survey ran for two years and helped the research team determine how the behavior spread to other cockatoos in Sydney.

By the end of 2019, residents from 44 areas had observed the bin-opening behavior, showing that it had spread rapidly and widely. Further analysis of the survey results showed that the behavior reached neighboring districts more quickly than districts further away, indicating that the new behavior wasn’t popping up randomly across Sydney, but instead knowledge that was being passed from cockatoo to cockatoo.

The researchers also marked around 500 cockatoos with small paint dots at three selected hot spots to enable the identification of individual birds, allowing the researchers to observe which birds could open bins. It turned out that only around ten percent could do so, most of which were males. The rest waited until the “pioneers” opened the garbage bins to then help themselves.

There was one exception, however: in late 2018, a cockatoo in northern Sydney reinvented the scavenging technique itself. Birds in neighboring districts then copied the behavior.


“We observed that the birds do not all open the garbage bins in the same way, but rather use different opening techniques in different suburbs, suggesting that the behavior is learned by observing others.”

-Dr.Barbara Klump, lead co-author of the study


The scientists have concluded that the results demonstrate an emergence of regional subcultures for learning.

Journal Reference:  Barbara C. Klump, John M. Martin, Sonja Wild, Jana K. Hörsch, Richard E. Major and Lucy M. Aplin. Innovation and geographic spread of a complex foraging culture in an urban parrot. Science, 2021             DOI: 10.1126/science.abe7808