An arms race over food waste: Sydney cockatoos keep opening bins on sidewalks, despite our best efforts to stop them

An arms race over food waste: Sydney cockatoos keep opening bins on sidewalks, despite our best efforts to stop them

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Credit: Barbara Klump, provided by the author

bloody hell! That cockatoo just opened my trash can and is eating the leftover pizza. We can’t have that, I’ll put a rock in the lid to keep him from opening the container. Problem solved…?

And so began a arms race in Sydney’s southern suburbs: humans trying to dissuade sulphur-crested cockatoos from opening sidewalk containers, and cockatoos overcoming their obstacles to feast on our food waste.

The ability to open curbside containers is unique to South Sydney cockatoos, but this behavior appears to be spreading. Last year, we published research revealing that this behavior is an impressive display of “social learning,” as birds learn the technique of opening the container by observing their neighbor.

This had global significance: it meant that we can add parrots to the culture’s list of foraging animals, which also includes chimpanzees, Humpback whales Y New Caledonian Ravens.






The Sulphur-crested Cockatoo successfully pushes a brick open to open the lid of a household rubbish bin. Credit: Barbara Klump/current biology

Our new research, released today, documents 50 container protection methods. It provides another example of a global problem of human-wildlife conflict; in fact, it is rare to document a change in behavior by one species in response to the actions of another.

Cockatoos make a mess

While container-opening cockatoos are fascinating, they can also create a mess. The birds search through the garbage to find food, occasionally dropping objects along the way. It goes without saying that it is not appreciated to come home to find garbage lying on the ground in front of your house.






Cockatoos in South Sydney have learned to open containers on the pavement.

Some people are also concerned that the food they eat is not healthy for cockies, such as pizza, bread, or chicken.

This arms race is a unique story, as we show that it not only involves the social learning of cockatoos, but also the response of humans.

Through our community survey, participants reported how and when they protected their containers from cockatoos, changed their container protection in response to cockatoos solving a method, and learned new protection methods from their neighbors.

Our research shows that people have stepped up their methods of deterring cockatoos from opening containers over time, as the smug ones outgrew their efforts. These seem to prevent or make it difficult for the cockatoos to open the lid of the bin (at least for now), while allowing it to empty when the dump truck inverts the bin.






A Sulphur-crested Cockatoo pushes a brick off the lid of a container, opens it, and then searches for food.

From rubber snakes to custom locks

Our research noted the many innovative ways to prevent cockatoos from opening containers, but we plan to evaluate the success of different methods in more detail in the future.

We’ll start with the quick and easy method of placing a brick, wood, metal, or a bottle filled with water on top of the container’s lid, making it too heavy for a cockatoo to lift. If the object is heavy enough then it should work.

If not, a cockatoo can push it in, open the lid and feed, as the video below shows.

A more sophisticated solution is to screw wood, metal, or brick to the cap, or tie the bottles to the top or bottom of the cap. This method permanently makes the lid too heavy and appears to be an effective deterrent.

Another popular method is to keep the container lid from opening with a string, bungee cord, metal spring, or stick placed through the handle or hinge. These methods had only variable success.

An arms race over food waste: Sydney cockatoos keep opening bins on sidewalks, despite our best efforts to stop them

A mat protects a container from cockatoos. Credit: Barbara Klump, provided by the author

Attaching a custom-designed padlock was also popular, and if it works properly, it seems to deter the smug. These locks allow the container to be opened when dumped by the garbage truck.

Some people put metal or plastic spikes around the rim to prevent birds from landing, or installed barriers to prevent a bird from sticking its beak under the lid of the container. These methods seemed to work.

Methods with poor results include modifying the container lid to prevent birds from perching or walking in an uncomfortable way, such as with a net. And trying to ward off birds by attaching a rubber snake is an interesting but not very popular method, so it may not be effective.

Still, the race continues, both in the suburbs where we’ve studied this new behavior and in new suburbs as this fast-food-seeking behavior spreads to neighboring suburbs and, eventually, beyond.

An example of human-wildlife conflict

We categorize cockatoo the opening of containers as a “human-wildlife conflict”. Such conflicts are common, from possums on the roof of a house, to the official chicken (the Australian white ibis) foraging for free food, to flying foxes roosting in urban areas or feeding in orchards.

An arms race over food waste: Sydney cockatoos keep opening bins on sidewalks, despite our best efforts to stop them

One household used shoes to keep the container lid closed. Credit: Barbara Klump, provided by the author

Conflicts can be the result of noises, odours, feces, damage to crops, gardens or buildings, or threats to people, livestock or pets.

Globally, human-wildlife conflict is both common and diverse: think of lions eating cattle, monkeys stealing tourists’ cameras, pigeons defecating and nesting in cities, seals sleeping on boatssharks that bite people, ducks that eat crops, and snakes that share homes.

Our attempts to deal with such conflicts can have tragic results for wildlife. An extreme example is shark nets, which kill sharks but do not prevent them from accessing the beach. They also kill or entangle non-target and sometimes threatened species such as turtles, dolphins, gray nurse sharks and whales.

Instead, we should learn to live alongside wildlife, especially as “species conflict” may be threatened, such as grey-headed flying foxes (an important pollinator) or great white sharks (an important predator).

In many cases of human-wildlife conflict, public education goes a long way toward reducing the conflict. Understanding wildlife behavior and appreciating the fascinating features of native species often changes community attitudes for the better: we can come to love them, not fight them.

So, whether it’s finding new and harmless ways to protect your container from hungry cockatoos or being smart around sharks, there are positive actions we can take if we’re informed.

To help our ongoing investigation, please take the Container Opening Survey 2022 and report if you have “seen” or “not seen” cockatoos by opening containers.


In Australia, cockatoos and humans are in an arms race for access to garbage


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Citation: An Arms Race Over Food Waste: Sydney Cockatoos Keep Opening Sidewalk Bins, Despite Our Best Efforts To Stop Them (2022, Sep 17) Retrieved Sep 17, 2022 at https://phys. org/news/2022-09-arms-food-sydney-cockatoos-curbside.html

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