Cockatoos learn how to flip open garbage bins by copying each other - ABC  News

Australians have a love-hate relationship with Sulphur-Crested Cockatoos. These crafty birds have a capacity to problem solve and have recently become a nuisance by learning to open Wheelie Bins to find food! 

For some Australians these ear screeching parrots are pests, destroying crops damaging homes and gardens. For others they are birds who often win over Australian hearts by their larrikin behaviour and their love of playing.

As one of Australia’s most distinctive native birds they are also one of the cleverest and most destructive! 

How a Garbage-Bin War Schools Humans and Birds - The New York Times

1. How do Sulphur-Crested Cockatoos open bins?

Sulphur-Crested Cockatoos have learned from each other to flip rubbish bin lids, as an opportunity to get food! Cockatoos make a lot of mess when they open bins and take all the rubbish out, so of course, understandably, people are not too amused by it!  Some people are also worried that the food being eaten is not healthy for the cockies such as bread or pizza!

Cockatoos Are Getting Smarter. Should Humans Be Worried? - WSJ

The whole country of Australia uses the same standardized public trash bin, so by watching others do it they can raid the wheelie bin for food. They have even thwarted human efforts protect their garbage by placing a brick on top of the by nudging off the bricks, heavy stones, or water bottles, weighing down the lids!

These persistent cockatoos have even foiled humans attempts to hold the lid down at the hinge by wedging shoes by the hinge or pushing shoes through the handles! 

A cockatoo can be frequently sighted opening a bin by holding the lid upwards into the air with its beak while standing near the front edge. They with the bin lid still in its beak it shuffles back towards the hinge, pushing the lid even higher until it flips open. This is an example of animal behavioural adaptation.

2. What are Cockatoos?

Billabong Sanctuary - Australian Native Wildlife Park Townsville

Sulphur-Crested Cockatoos are large white parrots with a distinctive bright yellow crest on their head which has feathers which are pointy and loose fitting. The “sulphur” in their name refers to the yellow plumage being a very similar colour to the yellow colouring of crystallised sulphur.

They have yellow under their wings, which are seen when flying and yellow feathers in their tail They have a hooked grey-black beak and grey legs.

These large parrots have an adult weight of 750-950g and range between 44-51cm in length with a wingspan of up to 103cm. Males and females are similar in appearance although if seen at close range a female can be identified by its red-brown eye which is different to the darker brown eye of a male.

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They are noisy both in rest and flight and are known for their loud wailing screeching noise as they fly. They are usually found in pairs or small groups, but in some parts of South Australia they often congregate in large flocks of up to 100.

3. Why are Cockatoos a pest in Australia?

Sulphur-crested Cockatoo

In the southern half of Western Australia Sulphur-Crested Cockatoos are declared pests of agriculture. The birds are regularly removed to keep wild flocks in check. 

Guidelines for Reducing Cockatoo Damage

These birds cause significant damage to crops, grains and fruits, and are a potential threat to agriculturel farms, vines and orchards. The birds can also damage, race courses, ovals, tennis courts and golf courses.

Cockatoos can cause costly damage timber fittings and furniture. They attack trees, decks and houses in a controlled frenzy of destruction that can continue ofor days. Cockatoos are the most destructive in the early spring and late summer as parent Cockatoos are trying to build nests in the early spring. Then as they baby birds leave their nests the start exploring their environment and are more likely to destroy things.

4. Why are Cockatoos so destructive?

It is in a Cockatoo’s nature to chew things; this natural behaviour includes chomping through wood in search of grubs and other food sources. They can aggressively attack wood by tearing up decks. They then stay put, so that as many wood-boring bugs are found in the near vicinity to save using energy, rather than moving on. 

A sulphur crested cockatoo digging out a nest in a tree in Castle Hill.

They also do it to keep their wear their beaks down as they grow, keeping them trim and sharp. This powerful beak can even crack macadamia nuts! But it is in their search for bugs in the bark which is the most destructive especially on soft timbers. Unfortunately, they often take a liking to chewing branches off certain trees such as White Cedar and they take great delight in taking fruit crops as they destroy these branches. Their habit of digging up newly sown seed and raiding ripening crops is destructive as well as damaging haystacks and attacking bagged grain.

Cockatoos are a bird which can become bored very easily and will begin chewing wood if they have nothing else to do. Unknowingly destructive, they are just behaving like this to have something to keep them busy and have fun.

Sulphur-crested cockatoos: Australian icon - Australian Geographic

Another theory as to why Cockatoos are so destructive is that it is a result of humans having removed so much of the bird’s natural habitat. Where the forests and trees are being cleared these resilient and adaptable birds have spread their range to cities and urban fringes to seek the wood chomping there.

Oakland Zoo | Sulfur-Crested Cockatoo

5. Why do Cockatoos dig holes?

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Sulphur-Crested Cockatoos spend a lot of time on the ground, digging up newly sown seeds and foraging to feed on fruit, seeds and especially the roots of plants. As a result, they can be very destructive and pull up grass roots disturbing neatly mowed lawns or ripening crops. 

They also eat bulbous roots, berries, nuts and leaf buds, and some insects and their larvae. They are particularly drawn to the ground level foraging of Onion grass due to its small bulb or corm, at the base which they love to eat. The cockatoos will travel many will travel many kilometres, to dig up the bulb and return to for days on end. As Onion grass is a serious weed and very difficult to control, this Cockatoo behaviour is actually advantageous for farmers and landowners as it prevents the Onion grass from regenerating. 

Sulphur-crested Cockatoo (Cacatua galerita galerita) | Flickr

As the flocks of Cockatoos are spending time on the ground digging holes and eating grass, roots and seeds they have a behavioural adaptation to protect them. This involves whenever there is a flock on the ground there is at lease one Cockatoo high up in a tree keeping guard for predators.

The digging of holes on the ground, is not for nesting as it would expose them to predators. They prefer to dig out nesting sites in the hollows of trees where they can keep an eye out for predators. In captivity it may be an instinctive nesting behaviour to burrow in the ground, but it is presumed that these birds are escaped birds that have been in captivity. 

6. Why do Sulphur-crested Cockatoos stand on one leg?

Like others in the parrot family, Sulphur-Crested Cockatoos are famously left footed.  They have strong legs and zygodactyl feet, which means they have two toes facing forwards and two facing backwards. This enables them to climb extremely well or grasp objects with one foot while standing on the other.

This exceptional ‘clever cockie’ behaviour is due to them having a lot of neurons in their brain, almost comparable to a chimpanzee!  These neurons are organised in a way that enables complex processing. And as a result, laterization occurs, this is when they can use one side of the brain in preference to the other enabling them to use one foot over another. This makes sulphur-crested cockatoos preferably “left-handed”. They can balance on one foot while they eat with the other foot.

Cockatoos stand on one leg while sleeping and may raise one leg at a time to stay warm.  Their legs and feet lack feather coverage, so nestling them into the feathers minimizes exposure to the elements and helps to reduce the amount of heat lost from the un-feathered part of their body.

7. What makes Cockatoos so noisy?

Sulphur-Crested Cockatoos are known for their loud raucous screeching as they fly overhead. This can be almost deafening in big numbers! 

This behaviour has evolved as a way of terrifying away possible predators.  When the Cockatoos are feeding the one or two sentry guards keeping watch. If they spot a predator such as a large kite or a snake, they give harsh explosive cry of warning. The other birds will they immediately take to the air, squealing and screeching giving a loud grating protesting to the danger that threatens. They continue until the danger has passed.

They also have a variety of calls none of which are attractive! Even when they are moving through the branches of a tree snatching off leaves, nuts, and twigs they often make a grating high pitched screeching cry.

When flying back home to roost they call loudly and continually, making a harsh whining cry. Everyday before going to sleep, they have a screaming session communicating with group members! 

8. Why do cockatoos flare their heads?

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Cockatoos raise their crests to express excitement, surprise, and defence.  Their crests which may be raised or lowered at will.

If they raise their crest and slightly shake their body this indicates excitement. They can move to and fro and shake their head to express happiness.

When they only raise their crest and stand still, they are surprised by something and alert. They silently observe the situation and if confused they stay alert. As they lower their crest it means they are back to normal and are calm.

When any danger approaches them, they raise their crest defensively and produce a shrill and loud sound, to alert the flock or scare away predators that come close. They also may open their wings to appear larger. When the cockatoo keeps his feathers very tight towards its body it is likely to attack a predator or person. If the cockatoo keeps his feathers fluffed up it is less likely to attack.

Changing the shape of their yellow crest and combining this with different body postures to also indicate that they are available and used as a display for its mate.

9. What does seeing White Cockatoo for Indigenous Australians mean?

With the stunning appearance of the Cockatoo, it is no surprise that these birds have a strong spiritual connection. For Aboriginal Australians, Cockatoos represent illumination as the sentinel guard through the darkness. They speak of commitment to partnerships and the safety of the group you are in. 

They represent comedic relief with their antics and the spark that mischief and curiosity bring to life. Each different type of Cockatoo can have its unique individual meaning and symbolism as a spirit animal. There are many mentions of the Cockatoo in folk lore and Dreamtime.

If a Sulphur-Crested Cockatoo spirit comes into your life, it might indicate that you are facing a hard time of personal darkness. The White Cockatoos will show you the light to fight the darkness that may be in your way.

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Seeing a White Cockatoo in a dream symbolises calmness of spirit or rebirth. If the Cockatoo comes down from a mountain in your dream, it signifies you need to prepare for change leading to greater independence. 

10. Are there any Australian colloquialisms or slang for Cockatoos?

As the Cockatoos always have a sentinel on guard ready to warn them of any danger approaching. Being a “cockatoo’ in Australian slang is a person keeps watch during some illegal activity especially gambling. Being on the lookout is also shortened to the word known as a “cocky” 

Some also say the meaning of the word is slang for diarrhea, most used in the plural when you have the “cockatoos”!

Cockatoos of Australia