Cockatoos Are Getting Smarter. Should Humans Be Worried? | Kanebridge News
Kanebridge News
Share Button

Cockatoos Are Getting Smarter. Should Humans Be Worried?

Scientists in Australia say some birds have figured out how to defeat efforts to keep them out of garbage bins, and now they appear to be teaching the others

Thu, Oct 20, 2022 9:00amGrey Clock 4 min

STANWELL PARK, Australia—Outside a local cafe, a sulphur-crested cockatoo perched on a garbage bin, trying to open the lid. Another loitered nearby, waiting to see if its companion found tasty morsels in the trash.

The birds, a type of parrot that is native to Australia, were acting out a common scene in this beachside suburb. There was a lock on the bin, but it seemed either broken or not properly closed. Coffee cups littered the street.

“It is chaos every Tuesday morning,” said Grant Drinkwater, 61, who has experimented with various devices to stop cockatoos from getting into his bins, which are collected that day each week. “Some people put bricks on top of their bins, but the cockatoos just push them off with their nose.”

This otherwise idyllic coastal neighbourhood is Ground Zero for what scientists call a potential “innovation arms race” between humans and cockatoos battling for control of the area’s garbage bins. As the cockatoos figure out ways into people’s bins, the humans respond with evermore elaborate devices to protect their garbage.

Trashy encounters between man and beast aren’t uncommon, as any suburban resident who has tried to keep raccoons out of the rubbish can attest. But in Australia, the age-old tension has reached wild heights.

The unusual bird bin-opening, a behaviour which scientists believe developed only in recent years, is now the subject of rigorous academic study. Researchers say it’s a unique opportunity to investigate how two species can learn—that is, cockatoos teaching others how to get into bins or people swapping bin-protection methods with their neighbours—to quickly adapt to what the other is doing.

Many days, the cockatoos seem to be winning.

Mr. Drinkwater thought he had a solution: He attached a piece of wood to the underside of his bin lid, which he figured would make it too heavy for the cockatoos to lift. It worked until the lid snapped off during trash collection one week, when a garbage truck used a robotic arm to grab the bin and turn it upside down.

He then switched to using a brick, but the cockatoos knocked it out of the way, got into the bin and threw trash all over the street. Now, he wedges a plastic drink bottle in the hinge of the lid, which he says prevents the birds from fully flipping it open. But some of his neighbours still have their guard down. On a recent trash day, an unprotected bin on his street was hit.

“It was a demolition derby,” said Mr. Drinkwater, recalling one particularly bad morning when cockatoos tossed garbage everywhere.

To open a bin, a cockatoo generally uses its beak and foot to lift the lid, shuffle along the side of it and then flip it over. Only a small percentage of cockatoos can flip the lid, but once it’s open, other birds dive in to search for food.

In a recent study, scientists found 52 different ways that people protected their bins from cockatoos. That ranged from weighting the bin lids to shoving old sneakers or a pool noodle in the hinge to fitting specially designed commercial latches onto the bins that residents call “cockie locks.”

In one case, someone tried to scare away the cockatoos with a rubber snake. Another person installed spikes to prevent the cockatoos from landing.

“I was just super excited about the variety,” said Barbara Klump, a behavioural ecologist at the Max Planck Institute of Animal Behavior, a scientific research institute in Germany, who led the research. “Originally I thought, ‘How many methods can there be to block the access to a bin?’ ”

The researchers grouped the bin-protection devices into multiple categories based on their sophistication, and confirmed the birds could defeat “low efficacy” methods like a rock on top of a bin. The study, published in the scientific journal “Current Biology,” included a picture of a cockatoo pushing away a brick.

Employing what they called a “spatial network approach,” the scientists found there were clusters of bins with similar protection methods. They also used data from an online survey to develop a mathematical model to show how human countermeasures changed over the years.

The cockatoos are good problem solvers, said Richard Major, a bird ecologist at the Australian Museum, a museum of natural history in Sydney. They generally eat a lot of grass seeds, roots and berries, but clearly aren’t picky. Dr. Major said he’s seen a cockatoo eating a chicken drumstick, and another gorging on what looked like a whole baked fish carcass.

“They’ve actually started to work in packs,” said Edith McNally, a retired school principal, who often sees cockatoos rummaging through bins on her morning walks in the neighbourhood. “It’s like gang warfare.”

Residents say the key is to prevent the birds from flipping the lid, which allows other birds to raid the bin. But the defences still have to allow the bin lid to open for the garbage truck. Ms. McNally, 73, tried wedging a broom handle into the lid’s hinge, but the handle sometimes fell into the garbage truck when the bin got tipped upside down.

Now she uses a cockie lock, which she says seems to be effective. One Australian company that makes the locks, Secure-A-Lid, says it uses a “gravity-release design mechanism” that disengages the main latch when the bin is tilted by garbage collectors.

Owner Brett Sweetnam was inspired to develop the device after his bins were raided by cockatoos, though it can protect against any creatures that might rummage through the garbage, he said.

Scientists say more research needs to be done. Dr. Klump and her colleagues are still running a survey to see if the bin-opening behaviour spreads to other areas.

Cate Bridgford, 22, who works at the cafe where the cockatoo was trying to open the bin, said that one time, the birds tossed soiled baby diapers from the garbage all over the ground.

“I don’t get mad at the birds. The birds, they just do what they do,” she said. “Those are our raccoons.”


Chris Dixon, a partner who led the charge, says he has a ‘very long-term horizon’

Americans now think they need at least $1.25 million for retirement, a 20% increase from a year ago, according to a survey by Northwestern Mutual

Related Stories
China’s EV Juggernaut Is a Warning for the West
By GREG IP 08/06/2023
How Hackers Can Up Their Game by Using ChatGPT
By Cheryl Winokur Munk 08/06/2023
World Bank Brightens View of Global Growth This Year, Downgrades 2024
By YUKA HAYASHI 07/06/2023
China’s EV Juggernaut Is a Warning for the West

Competitive pressure and creativity have made Chinese-designed and -built electric cars formidable competitors

Thu, Jun 8, 2023 4 min

China rocked the auto world twice this year. First, its electric vehicles stunned Western rivals at the Shanghai auto show with their quality, features and price. Then came reports that in the first quarter of 2023 it dethroned Japan as the world’s largest auto exporter.

How is China in contention to lead the world’s most lucrative and prestigious consumer goods market, one long dominated by American, European, Japanese and South Korean nameplates? The answer is a unique combination of industrial policy, protectionism and homegrown competitive dynamism. Western policy makers and business leaders are better prepared for the first two than the third.

Start with industrial policy—the use of government resources to help favoured sectors. China has practiced industrial policy for decades. While it’s finding increased favour even in the U.S., the concept remains controversial. Governments have a poor record of identifying winning technologies and often end up subsidising inferior and wasteful capacity, including in China.

But in the case of EVs, Chinese industrial policy had a couple of things going for it. First, governments around the world saw climate change as an enduring threat that would require decade-long interventions to transition away from fossil fuels. China bet correctly that in transportation, the transition would favour electric vehicles.

In 2009, China started handing out generous subsidies to buyers of EVs. Public procurement of taxis and buses was targeted to electric vehicles, rechargers were subsidised, and provincial governments stumped up capital for lithium mining and refining for EV batteries. In 2020 NIO, at the time an aspiring challenger to Tesla, avoided bankruptcy thanks to a government-led bailout.

While industrial policy guaranteed a demand for EVs, protectionism ensured those EVs would be made in China, by Chinese companies. To qualify for subsidies, cars had to be domestically made, although foreign brands did qualify. They also had to have batteries made by Chinese companies, giving Chinese national champions like Contemporary Amperex Technology and BYD an advantage over then-market leaders from Japan and South Korea.

To sell in China, foreign automakers had to abide by conditions intended to upgrade the local industry’s skills. State-owned Guangzhou Automobile Group developed the manufacturing know-how necessary to become a player in EVs thanks to joint ventures with Toyota and Honda, said Gregor Sebastian, an analyst at Germany’s Mercator Institute for China Studies.

Despite all that government support, sales of EVs remained weak until 2019, when China let Tesla open a wholly owned factory in Shanghai. “It took this catalyst…to boost interest and increase the level of competitiveness of the local Chinese makers,” said Tu Le, managing director of Sino Auto Insights, a research service specialising in the Chinese auto industry.

Back in 2011 Pony Ma, the founder of Tencent, explained what set Chinese capitalism apart from its American counterpart. “In America, when you bring an idea to market you usually have several months before competition pops up, allowing you to capture significant market share,” he said, according to Fast Company, a technology magazine. “In China, you can have hundreds of competitors within the first hours of going live. Ideas are not important in China—execution is.”

Thanks to that competition and focus on execution, the EV industry went from a niche industrial-policy project to a sprawling ecosystem of predominantly private companies. Much of this happened below the Western radar while China was cut off from the world because of Covid-19 restrictions.

When Western auto executives flew in for April’s Shanghai auto show, “they saw a sea of green plates, a sea of Chinese brands,” said Le, referring to the green license plates assigned to clean-energy vehicles in China. “They hear the sounds of the door closing, sit inside and look at the quality of the materials, the fabric or the plastic on the console, that’s the other holy s— moment—they’ve caught up to us.”

Manufacturers of gasoline cars are product-oriented, whereas EV manufacturers, like tech companies, are user-oriented, Le said. Chinese EVs feature at least two, often three, display screens, one suitable for watching movies from the back seat, multiple lidars (laser-based sensors) for driver assistance, and even a microphone for karaoke (quickly copied by Tesla). Meanwhile, Chinese suppliers such as CATL have gone from laggard to leader.

Chinese dominance of EVs isn’t preordained. The low barriers to entry exploited by Chinese brands also open the door to future non-Chinese competitors. Nor does China’s success in EVs necessarily translate to other sectors where industrial policy matters less and creativity, privacy and deeply woven technological capability—such as software, cloud computing and semiconductors—matter more.

Still, the threat to Western auto market share posed by Chinese EVs is one for which Western policy makers have no obvious answer. “You can shut off your own market and to a certain extent that will shield production for your domestic needs,” said Sebastian. “The question really is, what are you going to do for the global south, countries that are still very happily trading with China?”

Western companies themselves are likely to respond by deepening their presence in China—not to sell cars, but for proximity to the most sophisticated customers and suppliers. Jörg Wuttke, the past president of the European Union Chamber of Commerce in China, calls China a “fitness centre.” Even as conditions there become steadily more difficult, Western multinationals “have to be there. It keeps you fit.”


Chris Dixon, a partner who led the charge, says he has a ‘very long-term horizon’

Americans now think they need at least $1.25 million for retirement, a 20% increase from a year ago, according to a survey by Northwestern Mutual

    Your Cart
    Your cart is emptyReturn to Shop