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A couple of days ago a story about sulphur-crested cockatoos went semi-viral, probably in an attempt to lift spirits during Sydney's new Covid-19 lock-down. It appears that some smart cocky worked out how to open wheelie-bin lids.  That's not a surprise - see below.  What is surprising is that others are copying him and the practice is spreading outwards so that it can be mapped in a growing circle of awareness. The cockies are also choosing the red (household rubbish) bins that may contain food, disregarding yellow (cans and bottles); blue (paper and cardboard) and green bins (garden clippings). Yet, now they have also been observed checking-out other potentially food containing bins.

One has even been observed re-closing the lid - presumably to prevent other birds getting to the food.

Back in the 1950's I was given a pet sulphur-crested cockatoo we named Einstein. I was in primary school and I didn't yet know who Einstein was. My father suggested the name - explaining that Einstein was 'a wise old bird'.


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Before Einstein, I briefly had a pink and grey galah, a birthday present, that escaped, leading to tears, and Einstein was his/her replacement. 

This time, my father had a large thick-walled wooden crate, that had been used to ship machinery, delivered home from the factory he managed, and this was mounted on bricks; its open top now the front. It was fitted with a nesting box and perches and with four 2x2 wooden projections at the corners, sticking out a foot or so, to provide a framework for stretched chicken wire (we still used Imperial measurements back then). At the back was a door, sufficiently large for me to climb in to clean; and to paint the entire interior with whitewash, a job I did quite regularly. 

Cockatoos can inflict a very nasty bight.  My father said the man in the pet shop received such and injury through heavy leather gloves, so he was worried that I might lose a finger. Like many animals, sulphur-crested cockatoos are hierarchical so, from an early time if Einstein threatened to bight me, by raising his comb and going 'ha', I would backhand him across his beak. It was an unenlightened time. We still got caned at school. 

So, while he occasionally threatened, he never once bit me - he knew who was boss. Soon, corporal punishment was quite unnecessary and he would do tricks just for praise or for treats - like schoolchildren today. He particularly liked sunflower seeds. 

I spent a great deal of time in the cage with my new parrot.

Yet, like many intelligent birds, he was an escape artist and soon realised that by repeatedly bending the wire in one spot it would break. So, one of his wings was mildly clipped - just shortening the main flight feathers on his right wing. 

One day he'd made a hole in his wire sufficiently large to get out. But as his food was in his cage, in due course he went back.  After patching several holes, only to have new ones appear, I left his door unlatched and he would open and close it himself, for security at night, as he liked. Many years later, after I was married, we had Everard, the free-flying, within the flat, budgerigar, who would also retreat to his cage and shut the door when he'd had enough of being amusing, like turning over a 5 cent piece for visitors.

Despite his clipped wing, Einstein could still fly short distances, around our garden and the general neighbourhood, quite often requiring me to climb a tree to get him down. Then he would willingly run up my arm and sit on my shoulder as I descended.

Occasionally he would sit on our front fence and people would talk to him, so that soon he had a vocabulary of well over a hundred words and complete sentences of the sort people say to parrots: "Hello cocky"; "Poly want a cracker" and so on. To me he would say "scratchy scratch" when he wanted to be petted.  He would quite often sit in his cage and chat to himself quietly in his squeaky parrot voice - like a little-old-lady. 

Soon he mimicked most of the calls people around us made, like my mother calling: "Richard, Peter", which he would first yell, not very convincingly, then pause and answer: "coming!"; or Mrs Spencer calling: "Sandy, here pus, pus, pus" at Sandy's meal time (Sandy was the cat next door and didn't call back). He would also mimic other birds - often to their apparent annoyance - they would swoop him but soon knew not to get too close as he could double his height and grab a leg in a fraction of a second.

We had a rotating three-armed garden-sprinkler which he loved.  He would run in, wings spread, and his sulphur comb displayed, shrieking, jump on for a spin, and then, bouncing up and down, go through his repertoire of sayings.

Some people he liked he would trot up to, to have his head scratched, others, including Sandy if he got too close, he would chase out of 'his' garden - running and shrieking with wings spread. They would usually run away.

When he was out, he liked to eat the tips off my mother's plants but worse, he liked to chew holes in the garden hose or cut the extension lead used for the electric mower, often when someone was mowing. By now Peter and I were in our teens. He seemed to be able to do this without being electrocuted. He also liked to trot up and down on the roof. Once or twice he also chopped through the TV aerial-wire requiring Peter or me to go up on the roof to fix it. Another favourite trick was to pull all the pegs off the washing line; dropping the clothes and sheets onto the ground.  He would hook his beak on the wire and go hand-over-hand to the next peg that required a good chewing.

For all of these he was reprimanded as one might a naughty dog. This would stop him for a while, diverting his attention to ringbarking nearby trees, but every now and then he would find the hose; or the pegs; or something wooden; just too tempting and relapse.

But now he would realise he was in trouble and retreat to his cage shut the door to have a little chat; a picture of innocence. 

One day he disappeared and I believed that he had flown away, as he had once before, when his wing feathers had grown back. But that time he didn't go far and I got him back. He was very happy to be home - it's a long story.

I would look at flocks of sulphur-crested cockatoos and hope that one might fly down or at least say "hello".

Years later my father claimed that he had been mauled to death by a dog in our front garden and had to be discreetly disposed of to save my and Peter's feelings. But perhaps he went to the vet 'to meet the choir invisible'. He was high maintenance.

This teaching/learning behaviour has been observed in other intelligent species like elephants, and of course, various primates. Chimps have been observed teaching their young to use tools and monkeys teaching others to swim. In India we saw monkeys stealing tourist's phones, wallets and handbags and holding them to ransom in return for bottles of soft-drink. They had no difficulty unscrewing and then replacing the cap.

We have long known that some birds can count. According to Wikipedia: 'The corvids (ravens, crows, jays, magpies, etc.) and psittacines (parrots, macaws, and cockatoos) are often considered the most intelligent birds, and among the most intelligent animals in general', among other abilities, easily counting to six and some to eight.

The Australian term 'cocky' for a lookout, perhaps for an illegal two-up game, reflects the practice of sulphur-crested cockatoos: posting look-outs when raiding a farmer's crops. [Macquarie Dictionary example: ''Keep a cocky (ie cockatoo) for me mate' can be used for anything from taking a roadside pee to a house robbery'.]  In urban settings a flock is more likely to be attacking fruit trees or more annoyingly chewing-up an expensive veranda rail or wooden window frames.

Yet this, clearly learned, bin opening behaviour sets sulphur-crested cockatoos another step above most other birds, surpassing even those famous bin raiders, the ibis.

Einstein indeed.


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In August 2019 we returned to Turkey, after fourteen years, for a more encompassing holiday in the part that's variously called Western Asia or the Middle East.  There were iconic tourist places we had not seen so with a combination of flights and a rental car we hopped about the map in this very large country. 

We began, as one does, in Istanbul. 

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Fiction, Recollections & News

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The fellow sitting beside me slammed his book closed and sat looking pensive. 

The bus was approaching Cremorne junction.  I like the M30.  It starts where I get on so I’m assured of a seat and it goes all the way to Sydenham in the inner West, past Sydney University.  Part of the trip is particularly scenic, approaching and crossing the Harbour Bridge.  We’d be in The City soon.

My fellow passenger sat there just staring blankly into space.  I was intrigued.   So I asked what he had been reading that evoked such deep thought.  He smiled broadly, aroused from his reverie.  “Oh it’s just Inferno the latest Dan Brown,” he said.   

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Opinions and Philosophy

How does electricity work?




The electrically literate may find this somewhat simplified article redundant; or possibly amusing. They should check out Wikipedia for any gaps in their knowledge.

But I hope this will help those for whom Wikipedia is a bit too complicated and/or detailed.

All cartoons from The New Yorker - 1925 to 2004

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