Scientific American: Cockatoos outsmart people in garbage wars

UC ecologist explains what makes cockatoos so devilishly clever

Scientific American turned to a University of Cincinnati behavioral ecologist to explain what makes cockatoos so fiendishly intelligent.

Sulphur-crested cockatoos, a type of parrot, are found in cities in Australia where they have a nasty habit of raiding garbage cans. About 10 years ago, one clever bird figured out how to pry off the lid of a garbage bin to get to food remains. Soon, cockatoos across Sydney were parroting the behavior, annoying neighbors across the city with their littering.

Elizabeth Hobson sits on a bench on UC's Uptown campus.

Elizabeth Hobson. Photo/Andrew Higley/UC Marketing + Brand

UC assistant professor Elizabeth Hobson studies parrots and other social birds in her lab in UC's College of Arts and Sciences. She told Scientific American that parrots have a formidable brain.

“[Parrots] are pretty cognitively flexible in terms of their problem-solving,” Hobson told Scientific American. “They can learn from others, and they can innovate.”

In her lab, Hobson and her students study a variety of animal behaviors, including pecking orders and the social structures of birds such as fairy penguins.

Ironically, researchers at the Max Planck Institute of Animal Behavior found that much like cockatoos, people living in Sydney seemed to adopt behavioral cues from their closest neighbors about how best to deter the birds' garbage raids rather than turning to experts elsewhere for solutions.

Some people put rubber snakes on their cans to scare off the birds. Others placed heavy weights on the lids. As with cockatoo societies, people who lived near each other seemed to adopt similar strategies in what Scientific American called “an innovation arms race” between people and cockatoos.

Read the Scientific American story.

Check out Hobson Lab for more exciting UC animal behavior research.

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