Equilibrium/Sustainability — Bird vs. human ‘arms race’ heats up

Australia’s wily trash-raiding cockatoos are running up against human ingenuity in a real-time evolutionary “arms race,” a new study has found.

The dynamic relationship between cockatoos who want to open trash bins and the humans who want to keep them out is driving both species to new feats of “social learning,” according to the study, published on Monday in Current Biology.

Groups of the cockatoos, a social species native to Australia, had learned to open trash bins in two Sydney suburbs — and spread the method to “cockatoo colleagues” in 40 more, as we reported last year.

This rapid diffusion of trash-raiding strategies is a reflection of cockatoo culture, lead author Barbara Klump, of the Max Planck Institute of Animal Behavior, said in a statement.

“The cockatoos learn the behavior from observing other cockatoos and within each group they sort of have their own special technique, so across a wide geographic range the techniques are more dissimilar,” Klump said.

The cockatoos have hacked a weakness in Sydney’s garbage management system, according to the researchers. The bins can’t be sealed against them without also ruining the ability of the city’s semi-automated trash trucks to pick them up.

But that need has created a niche for more creative deterrents, from hinge-blocking sticks to rocks that weigh down bin lids.

“It’s not just social learning on the cockatoo side, but it’s also social learning on the human side,” Klump says. “People come up with new protection methods on their own, but a lot of people actually learn it from their neighbors or people on their street, so they get their inspiration from someone else.”

Welcome to Equilibrium, a newsletter that tracks the growing global battle over the future of sustainability. We’re Saul Elbein and Sharon Udasin. Send us tips and feedback. A friend forward this newsletter to you? Subscribe here.

Today we’ll look at why fires in the Pacific Northwest are worsening air quality as far east as Denver. Plus: Why the White House is worried about a proposed rail strike next week, and a surprise culprit in mining-related deforestation.

Air Quality Concerns

Wildfires gripping the Pacific Northwest are making the air far less breathable across the U.S. West, as windy weather transports hazardous particles and over multiple state lines.

Blazes abound: First responders were fighting 16 large fires in the Pacific Northwest on Monday, with smoke conditions persisting throughout the region, according to the Northwest Interagency Coordination Center — a hub for federal and state woodland fire agencies.

About a third of the major active fires across the West are in Idaho, while the greatest total burned acreage is in Oregon, the National Interagency Fire Center said.

Montana, Washington state, Utah, Wyoming and California also have large active fires.

Far away from the fire, up in smoke: The Pacific Northwest was already contending with widespread air quality issues following a smoky weekend, though now areas far away from the rolling conflagrations are facing deteriorating air conditions as well.

  • “It’s something that the people who live here have kind of gotten used to, but I think their health is affected by it,” Bob Yokelson, an atmospheric chemist at the University of Montana, told Equilibrium.

  • Yokelson’s region of Montana, located just east of the Idaho panhandle, has been enduring an influx of smoke predominantly from fires raging in Idaho, but also from those in Washington, Oregon and Western Canada.

Things are getting worse: “It’s one of the few regions here in the Pacific Northwest where the air hasn’t been getting better over the years,” Yokelson said.

“Climate change and past fuel management are making the fires worse,” he continued, noting that Montana is situated downwind from most Northwest wildfire hotspots.

Effects on human health: While Montana is coping with brutal air quality, states from the Midwest to the Mountain West are also bracing for the possible health effects of these fires located hundreds of miles away.

Such pollution comes from fine particulate matter — known as PM 2.5, or particles with a diameter of less than 2.5 microns — which is prominent in wildfire ash and can cause respiratory health issues.

Out-of-state smoke: Colorado’s Department of Public Health and Environment issued a smoke outlook on Monday morning, warning “hazy skies and light to moderate concentrations of smoke are possible” in parts of the state.

  • Such air quality conditions, according to the agency, would be “due to smoke from out-of-state wildfires.”

  • While no significant public health impacts were expected, the agency advised that sensitive individuals should reduce heavy exertion in areas where smoke is apparent.


The smoke is spreading great distances due to a high-pressure weather system that has set in over the Great Basin watershed, Frank Flocke, an atmospheric chemist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research, told Equilibrium.

Such systems, which are common in the summer, cause the air to rotate clockwise and can pick up smoke from California, Oregon and Idaho and carry it down to distant states like Colorado, Flocke explained.

Where exactly are the fires? Among the Pacific Northwest blazes feeding this system is central Oregon’s Cedar Creek Fire, which grew to 86,734 acres on Monday, according to the National Wildfire Coordinating Group.

  • In northeastern Oregon’s Wallowa National Forest, the Double Creek Fire burned 155,297 acres.

  • Thirty-four large fires were blazing in Idaho, including the Moose Fire, which burned 125,925 acres.

  • Washington’s Bolt Creek and Goat Rocks fires also burned 7,660 acres and 2,842 acres respectively.

Weather systems unaccustomed to fire: While high-pressure weather systems over the Great Basin are regular occurrences of summer, the sources of the smoke — Western wildfires — have increased in intensity in recent years, according to Flocke.

“There are more fires now outside of what was traditionally considered the fire season,” he said, noting that such a shift could potentially be attributed to climate change.

“Now we’re getting more smoke and more often and for longer periods of time because there are more fires and the fire season is extended and is getting more intense,” Flocke added.

To read the full story, please click here.

White House races to avert rail strike

U.S. railways could shut down next week if national rail carriers can’t reach a deal with leading unions of train workers around labor conditions.

Scramble session: The White House was holding emergency meetings on Monday in an effort to avoid a strike, which would lead to nationwide shutdowns, The Washington Post reported.

  • The crisis pits President Biden’s desire to support labor with his desire to head off a breakdown in the nation’s transport infrastructure.

  • The strike will begin on Friday — shutting down 30 percent of the country’s freight and virtually all of its passenger rail — if an agreement isn’t reached.

Corporate terrorism: Leading rail union leaders on Sunday accused major railroad companies of “corporate terrorism”, The Associated Press reported.

  • They were responding to an announcement by freight railroad operators that they were delaying some shipments this week in advance of a potential strike next week. 

  • “The railroads are using shippers, consumers, and the supply chain of our nation as pawns in an effort to get our unions to cave in to their contract demands,” two union leaders wrote in a statement.

Quality of life: Two leading railroad unions have not yet consented to a deal with operators like Union Pacific, Norfolk Southern and BNSF.

For these groups, quality of life is the sticking point in their negotiations, CNBC reported.

  • The two unions — Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen and the SMART Transportation Division — represent half of all unionized railroad workers. 

  • Eight other leading unions reached a preliminary agreement, which didn’t include the provisions around attendance policies, vacations and sick time. 

  • These two unions have pushed back against new attendance policies by Fort Worth, Texas-based BSNF — a wholly owned subsidiary of Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway — that workers called “brutal.”

Losing points: At issue is a points-based attendance system BNSF rolled out in February, CNBC noted.

This system helped the operator streamline administration and avoid discrimination suits — at the cost of infuriating many rail workers, Texas-based D Magazine reported earlier this year.

  • Walmart and Amazon also use pointsbased systems.

  • These companies, however, are almost entirely non-union.

Burning out: Union leaders said the relentless pace of work during the combined supply chain and pandemic-related crises had pushed them to a breaking point

  • “We’re facing the potential of a strike because the railroad refuses to grant one single day of sick time,” Ron Kaminkow of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen — one of the outstanding unions — told the Post.

  • “It’s about the phone rings at 2 a.m. to be at work at 4 a.m. after just 10 hours of rest,” Kaminkow said. “It’s about not knowing when you’re coming home and being penalized with discipline up to firing if you need to go to the doctor.”

Battery material mining linked to deforestation

Industrial mining in Indonesia was a major contributor to tropical deforestation over the past two decades, a new paper has found.

Deforestation for minerals: The study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences on Monday, raises questions about Indonesia’s push to be a sustainable source for the minerals needed worldwide for clean tech.

  • Indonesia is by far the world’s leading producer of nickel, according to the
    U.S. Geological Survey. 

  • Nickel is a critical material for producing electric vehicle batteries.

Urgent questions: “Against the rapidly growing demands for minerals, in particular for metals for renewable energy and e-mobility technologies, government and industry policies must take into account both the direct and indirect impacts of extraction,” coauthor Anthony Bebbington, of Clark University said in a statement.

Nearly 60 percent of all deforestation for the purposes of mining between 2000 and 2019 happened in Indonesia, according to the PNAS study.

Monday Miscellanies

Why Maine lobsters are (so far) not hurting from climate change, rising heat hits Hong Kong housing and a new payment system takes aim at mass shootings.

Despite changing climate, Maine’s lobsters are doing fine

  • While the Gulf of Maine is undergoing rapid warming — conditions that could hamper lobster survival — the 2022 lobster catch has remained strong thus far, according to The Washington Post. The lobster industry has engineered flexible transportation mechanisms that can keep the animals alive and healthy in high temperatures, while primary predators have decreased due to overfishing, the Post reported.

Climate change worsening Hong Kong’s housing crisis

  • Soaring real estate prices and long waits for public housing in Hong Kong have pushed the city’s poorest into residences that fail to withstand oppressive summer heat, The Washington Post reported. A 2021 report showed that about 220,000 people — 3 percent of the city’s population — lived in crowded rooftop huts and subdivided apartments, which were 9-11 degrees Fahrenheit hotter than outdoors, according to the Post.

Could a new payment code for guns head off mass shootings?

  • Credit card companies Visa, American Express and Mastercard agreed on Sunday to begin using a new international code for purchases from gun stores — a measure gun safety advocates have flagged as a means of avoiding mass shootings, The New York Times reported. That builds on an existing debate that has raged all year over whether environment, social and governance (ESG) funds should be investing in firearms at all, as the conservative Competitive Enterprise Institute noted.

Please visit The Hill’s Sustainability section online for the web version of this newsletter and more stories. We’ll see you tomorrow.


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