In Sydney, Australia, humans and birds are fighting a fierce battle over the most precious resource: trash. Over the past several years, a team of scientists have studied sulfur macaws in the area that have learned — and even taught other parrots — how to steal litter boxes. And in new research Monday, the team said humans are now beginning to devise their own methods of keeping birds away, with varying degrees of success.
Researchers at the Max Planck Institute for Animal Behavior in Germany have long been interested in deciphering the inner workings of animals around the world. Last year, hmm published A deep dive into the litter-stealing habits of Sydney’s sulfur-filled parrots. They found that the practice seemed to be an example of animal culture: a learned behavior that spreads from birds in three suburbs to all over southern Sydney. As technology moved from neighborhood to neighborhood, local cockatoos developed subtle differences in behaviour, such as lifting the lid of the box completely or not opening it – something that happens fairly common in human culture (think of how different local cultures produce their own types of cheese).
Researchers told Gizmodo last year that they were then interested in documenting the human side of this conflict. And that’s exactly what they did in their new paper, published Monday in Current Biology.
“When we collected data for the original study describing the behavior of opening containers by cockatoos, I saw that some people had put devices in their bins to protect them from cockatoos, and I was surprised by the variety of different actions that people came up with. So I really wanted to investigate the human response to cockatoos,” said the author Principal Barbara Clamp, a behavioral ecologist at the Max Planck Institute, told Gizmodo in an email.
To do this, they surveyed the people living in the besieged neighborhoods of these birds. A major drawback to any potential cockatoos control trick is that the crates They are designed to open and spill their contents when lifted by the robotic arm in garbage trucks, which means they cannot be kept completely airtight. But that didn’t stop people from inventing a variety of methods, such as placing bricks and stones on lids, attaching water bottles to lid handles with cable ties, or using sticks to clog hinges. There are now commercially available locks that are supposed to open at assembly time (one of these can be seen over here).
Unfortunately for humans, cockatoos have learned to overcome some simple actions. But as far as birds adapt, people are developing meters again. As the researchers said, it appears that the parrots and people in Sydney are engaging in a kind of innovation “arms race”, although Clamp refrains from describing it as a full-fledged war.
“When cockatoos learn to overcome this protective measure (eg by pushing bricks so that they can then open the box), people in our survey reported that they increase the effectiveness of their protective measures (eg by installing something heavy on the lid, so that it can’t be pushed.) What we’ve found is that trash protection (and types of protection) are geographically clustered and that people learn about it from their neighbors,” Clamp said.
The researchers say the entire saga may be a preview of the kind of increasingly common interactions between people and wildlife we can expect as we continue to build our cities bigger and encroach on wildlife habitats. Some animals, like these parrots, may find new ways to adapt to our existence, but many others will not. And sometimes, these interactions can be harmful to humans, such as the emergence of a new zoonotic infectious diseases.
What exactly will happen next is anyone’s guess. “One could imagine that it would continue to escalate (i.e. cockatoos learn to defeat higher-level protection types, people devise better devices to protect their chests) or one side could ‘win’ the arms race,” Clamp said.
For their part, the team plans to continue studying the underlying learning mechanisms that led these cockatoos to become accomplished garbage collectors, and they hope to document how skilled they are at solving the latest countermeasures aimed at keeping them away from the trash hoard.
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