You’ve heard of trash-talking cockatoos, and probably watched the YouTube videos a dozen times. But have you ever heard of trash-eating cockatoos? Sulfur-crested cockatoos from 44 suburbs across Sydney, Australia, have been foraging in human rubbish, joining the ranks of other garbage-consuming creatures such as crows, pigeons, raccoons, bears, deer, and seagulls. For the last two years, ecologists have been studying these feathered bin divers and have observed some fairly sophisticated foraging behaviour, which includes picking the right bins (the red-lidded general waste ones, not the yellow-lidded recycling ones) and using their beaks to pry open the lids.
On the face of it, this seems like the kind of behaviour that makes animals amusing and internet-famous. Remember Pizza Rat, the plucky rodent who became something of a pop cultural icon and even earned a spot on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert for dragging a pizza slice down the steps of a New York City subway? Unlike rats, though, cockatoos are not scavengers — they’re primarily seed and nut-eaters who also happen to be clever, curious opportunists, resulting in some of them now eating garbage.
This is unfortunate. It speaks volumes about the human impact on animal diets, behaviours and habitats. And cockatoos can at least tell the difference between sandwich crumbs and a styrofoam coffee cup, avoiding the bins in which the latter might be dumped (although Sydney authorities would still do well to find better ways to secure their bin lids). Other creatures don’t necessarily have the ability to be so discerning, such as the sperm whale that, in 2019, was found dead on a beach in Scotland with 220 pounds of plastic trash in its belly. So the lesson from the dumpster-diving cockatoos of Sydney is not that they have adapted well to living alongside us. In their own ways, many other creatures have also had to adapt to the consequences of human society. No, the real takeaway is that we must change the conditions that make it necessary for them to do so.