Birds in the city

How cockatoos adapt to an urban environment

A scientist in southern Germany is lifting the lid on Australian birds and how they are learning to open suburban wheelie bins.

Australian researcher Dr Lucy Aplin, at the Max Planck Institute of Animal Behavior, has been awarded an EU grant to delve further into the cognition of sulphur-crested cockatoos – work she began in the suburbs of Sydney.

Cockatoos are extremely gregarious birds that forage in small groups, roost in large ones, and are rarely seen alone.

Dr Aplin has previously studied how cockatoos have learned to open the lids of suburban wheelie bins to forage for food.

Most birds opening bins are males, which tend to be larger than females. The birds that mastered the trick also tended to be dominant in social hierarchies.

“This suggests that if you’re more socially connected, you have more opportunities to observe and acquire new behaviour – and also to spread it,” Dr Aplin said.

This also means survival: cockatoos are thriving in suburbs where other bird populations are declining.

Dr Aplin’s goal is to understand the birds’ behaviour and social structure using a combination of citizen science and direct observation.

“I study social learning, social networks and culture, mostly in wild populations of birds,” she says. “Broadly, I am interested in the interactions between cognition, social dynamics and transmission of behaviour.”

Her unique research deepens science’s understanding of the cultural diversity of animals in changing environments. It might even give insights into the evolution of culture in humans.