Sydney Residents Caught in an Arms Race with Trash Parrots

  • They might be a nuisance, but no one can call these parrots birdbrained.

Out-of-control animals appear to be wreaking havoc all around the globe. In Japan, marauding monkeys are harassing people, while Hawaiians battle feral chickens.

We can now add Australia to the list of countries locked in combat with an animal menace. But in this case, the enemy is much more intelligent than in the earlier wars.

The residents of the Sydney suburbs are trying to deal with flocks of sulfur-crested cockatoos. Due to their habit of stealing and feasting on household garbage, the locals have given the birds the unflattering nickname “trash parrots.”

The birds like to plunder residents’ trash cans, stealing garbage bags and creating a mess. The conflict between Sydneysiders and the trash parrots has lasted so long because they’re stuck in an escalating arms race.

The residents are resorting to increasingly heavy-duty methods to keep the birds from rummaging through their garbage. But it’s to no avail — no matter what they do, the cockatoos soon learn how to get past the latest obstacle.

For quite some time, scientists have been drawn to observe the conflict. Not because they’re trying to find a way to help the people, though. They find the birds’ ability to solve increasingly difficult problems fascinating.

“Watch and learn, kid.”

Learning from Their Mistakes

The cockatoos have been plaguing Sydney residents for years. In the beginning, though, it was fairly simple to deal with them.

All people had to do is keep their trash can lids shut. But then, the parrots started learning.

In 2018, stories began to surface about the parrots having figured out how to open the trash cans. They would pry the lid back and dive into the trash in search of food and whatever else parrots might be interested in.

For the locals, this naturally was a whole new nuisance. On the other hand, biologists were curious about the birds’ behavior.

The most interesting observation was that not all cockatoos opened the trash cans the same way.

“We observed that the birds do not open the garbage bins in the same way, but rather used different opening techniques in different suburbs,” said Barbara Klump, a postdoctoral research fellow at the Max Planck Institute of Animal Behavior in Radolfzell, Germany.

This fact brought up a follow-up question. Were the birds genetically disposed to open garbage bins a certain way, or were they learning the behavior from somewhere else?

After recording 338 reports from 44 Sydney suburbs, the researchers had no doubt about the results. The birds were watching their comrades’ attempts to open the bins and learning from each other’s mistakes.

This explained the different opening methods the trash parrots used. As one parrot figured out a trick that worked, others copied it — but birds in different regions were learning different tricks.

Nonetheless, the result was the same. The birds got into the garbage and made a mess.

An Escalating Arms Race

Although the discovery might’ve been scientifically significant, it didn’t help Sydney residents. The birds were still spreading garbage all over their yards and driveways.

Since 2018, people have tried numerous countermeasures to deter the thieving parrots. The first trick was simple enough — putting a heavy brick on top of the trash can.

But the thing is, the cockatoos aren’t birdbrains. It didn’t take them long to figure out how to push the brick off and open the bin.

Then the residents started jamming the lids by stuffing old shoes and sticks into the hinges. That worked… For a while.

Next, some residents began to leave fake rubber snakes near the bins. This method has proven more effective due to the parrots’ natural fear of snakes, but some of them have been brave enough to figure out that the snakes aren’t real.

Consequently, some fed-up locals have brought out the big guns. They’ve started locking their trash bins with heavy-duty locks — the same kind people in northern parts of the U.S. and in Canada use to keep bears away from their trash.

Smart as the parrots are, they can’t open the locks, so they definitely work. But there’s a downside — they also keep the trash collectors from emptying the bins.

To scientists’ delight, the battle between man and parrot rages on. But we kind of doubt the locals share their glee.