Cockatoos Are Getting Smarter. Should Humans Be Worried?
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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.”


Consumers are going to gravitate toward applications powered by the buzzy new technology, analyst Michael Wolf predicts

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

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Our refrigerators, washing machines and ovens can do more than ever, from producing symmetrical ice cubes to remotely preheating on your commute home. The downside to all these snazzy features is that the appliances are more prone to breaking.

Appliance technicians and others in the industry say there has been an increase in items in need of repair. Yelp users, for example, requested 58% more quotes from thousands of appliance repair businesses last month than they did in January 2022.

Those in the industry blame a push toward computerisation, an increase in the quantity of individual components and flimsier materials for undercutting reliability. They say even higher-end items aren’t as durable.

American households spent 43% more on home appliances in 2023 than they did in 2013, rising from an inflation-adjusted average of $390 to $558, according to Euromonitor International. Prices for the category declined 12% from the beginning of 2013 through the end of 2023, according to the Labor Department.

One reason for the discrepancy between spending and prices is a higher rate of replacement, say consumers, repair technicians and others. That’s left some people wishing they had held on to their clunky ’90s-era appliances and others bargaining with repair workers over intractable ice makers and dryers that run cold.

“We’re making things more complicated, they’re harder to fix and more expensive to fix,” says Aaron Gianni, the founder of do-it-yourself home-repair app Plunjr.

Horror stories

Sharon J. Swan spent nearly $7,000 on a Bosch gas range and smart refrigerator. She thought the appliances would last at least through whenever she decided to sell her Alexandria, Va., home and impress would-be buyers.

That was before the oven caught fire the first time she tried the broiler, leading to a 911 call and hasty return. The ice-maker in the refrigerator, meanwhile, is now broken for the third time in under two years. Bosch covered the first two fridge fixes, but she says she’s on her own for the latest repair, totalling $250, plus parts.

“I feel like I wasted my money,” says the 65-year-old consultant for trade associations.

A Bosch spokeswoman said in an emailed statement that the company has been responsive to Swan’s concerns and will continue to work with her to resolve ongoing issues. “Bosch appliances are designed and manufactured to meet the highest quality standards, and they are built to last,” she said.

Kevin and Kellene Dinino wish they had held on to their white dishwasher from the ’90s that was still working great.

The sleeker $800 GE stainless steel interior dishwasher they purchased sprang a hidden leak within three years, causing more than $35,000 worth of damage to their San Diego kitchen.

Home insurance covered the claim, which included replacing the hardwood down to the subfloor and all their bottom cabinetry, but kicked the Dininos off their policy. The family also went without access to their kitchen for months.

“This was a $60 pump that was broken. What the hell happened?” says Kevin, 45, who runs a financial public-relations firm.

A GE Appliances spokeswoman said the company takes appliance issues seriously and works quickly to resolve them with consumers.

Increased complexity

Peel back the plastic on a modern refrigerator or washing machine and you’ll see a smattering of sensors and switches that its 10-year-old counterpart lacks. These extra components help ensure the appliance is using only the energy and water it needs for the job at hand, technicians say. With more parts, however, more tends to go wrong more quickly, they say.

Mansoor Soomro, a professor at Teesside University, a technical college in Middlesbrough, England, says home appliances are breaking down more often. He says that manufacturers used to rely mostly on straightforward mechanical parts (think an on/off switch that triggers a single lever). In the past decade or so, they’ve transitioned to relying more on sophisticated electrical and computerised parts (say, a touch screen that displays a dozen different sensor-controlled wash options).

When a complicated machine fails, technicians say they have a much harder time figuring out what went wrong. Even if the technician does diagnose the problem, consumers are often left with repairs that exceed half the cost of replacement, rendering the machine totalled.

“In the majority of cases, I would say buying a new one makes more economic sense than repairing it,” says Soomro, who spent seven years working at Siemens , including in the home-appliances division.

These machines are also now more likely to be made with plastic and aluminium rather than steel, Soomro says. High-efficiency motors and compressors, too, are likely to be lighter-duty, since they’re tasked with drawing less energy .

A spokeswoman for the Association for Home Appliance Manufacturers says the industry has “enhanced the safety, energy efficiency, capacity and performance of appliances while adding features and maintaining affordability and durability for purchasers.” She says data last updated in 2019 shows that the average life of an appliance has “not substantially shifted over the past two decades.”

When simpler is better

Kathryn Ryan and Kevin Sullivan needed a new sensor to fix their recently purchased $1,566 GE Unitized Spacemaker washer-dryer. GE wasn’t able to fix the sensor for months, so the couple paid a local technician $300 to get the machine working.

The repairman also offered them a suggestion: Avoid the sensor option and stick to timed dries.

“You should be able to use whatever function you please on a brand new appliance, ideally,” says Sullivan, a 32-year-old musician in Burbank, Calif.

More features might seem glamorous, Frontdoor virtual appliance tech Jim Zaccone says, but fewer is usually better.

“Consumers are wising up to the failures that are happening and going, ‘Do I really need my oven to preheat while I’m at the grocery store?’” jokes Zaccone, who has been in the appliance-repair business for 21 years.

He just replaced his own dishwasher and says he bought one with “the least bells and whistles.” He also opted for a mass-market brand with cheap and readily available parts. Most surprisingly, he chose a bottom-of-the-line model.

“Spending a lot of money on something doesn’t guarantee you more reliability,” says Zaccone.


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