- An experiment with eight African grey parrots shows the birds are intrinsically motivated to help one another like humans.
- The parrots, famed for their ability to mimic human speech, spontaneously helped their partners to obtain treats in a token-exchange experiment whose findings were published in the journal Current Biology.
- This kind of behavior has been seen in mammals like humans and great apes, but not in birds.
- Some experts say more comprehensive studies are needed to conclusively prove this altruistic behavior exists in birds.
It looked like a game of parrot poker, but the token exchange counter set up by European researchers at a Spanish zoo was an experiment to determine if African grey parrots (Psittacus erithacus) are inclined to be good Samaritans.
Like humans, the parrots, which are famous for their ability to mimic human speech, are intrinsically motivated to help one another, the study published Jan. 9 in Current Biology found. The experiment was limited to eight African greys, but it is likely to spark more research because, until now, this kind of helping behavior has not been seen in birds.
Mammals like humans and great apes are known to help each other like this. The authors say their research shows that this kind of altruism has evolved in birds independently from mammals. The two classes shared an ancestor more than 300 million years ago, but according to one line of thinking, being faced with similar social and ecological pressures led to the emergence of the same cognitive abilities in the two groups.
The corvid family of birds that includes crows and ravens, like parrots, are known as “feathered apes” because they have a large brain size relative to their bodies and are known to display intelligent behavior. However, crows are not known to share. “In 2015, a study by Austrian researchers tested ravens’ abilities to help one another and found that they acted rather selfish,” said Désirée Brucks, an animal behavior specialist at ETH Zurich, Switzerland, and first author of the new paper. “This got me wondering about parrots and whether these rather tolerant birds would help another.”
The parrots performed the experiment in pairs. They were placed side by side in a partitioned compartment, and only one bird could access a booth where tokens could be exchanged for treats. The only problem? The round metallic tokens were all given to the partner who could not access the token booth and exchange them. A small window in the barrier between their cubicles allowed the parrots to interact.
In different iterations, the scientists denied access to the exchange counter for both parrots or allowed the token holder to exchange them directly for treats. In another, they removed the receiving parrot partner altogether. They were able to observe the parrots’ behavior in all these situations. Most of the parrots, when they could not exchange them directly, appeared to spontaneously share their tokens with their partners who, in turn, traded it for the reward: a piece of walnut.
The parrots appeared to share tokens without any knowledge that the favor would be reciprocated in the future. They also seemed to help those who were not their friends or related to them.
In the wild, these parrots are known to be highly social; they live in small family groups that are part of a bigger pandemonium. The natural range of the African grey parrot encompasses large swaths of equatorial Africa, from Uganda in the east to Sierra Leone in the west. But hunters take advantage of their sociability and target the large flocks in which the birds live. It is estimated that about a fifth of the wild population is poached every year to meet the illicit demand to keep them as exotic pets. The species is currently listed as endangered in the IUCN Red List, and trade in the African grey has been banned under CITES since 2016.
The researchers also did the same experiment with six blue-headed macaws (Primolius couloni), a species that belongs to the same family of parrots (Psittacide) but is only distantly related to the African grey. The macaws were found to be much less inclined to share tokens. Most of the macaws tried to get to the human exchanger themselves to get the reward.
Not everybody is convinced that the study proves the larger point, given the small sample size and the variability in behavior from one pair to another. “The findings are not really surprising, and the data do not support the strong conclusions,” Irene Maxine Pepperberg, a specialist in animal cognition, in particular parrots, at Harvard University, told Mongabay in an email.
Pepperberg said grey parrots were known to cooperate to get food simultaneously and to “reciprocate in a tit-for-tat situation.” They also seem to grasp the idea of delayed gratification. She had a question of her own for the researchers: If the birds were willing to share, why didn’t the receiver bird sometimes give up a nut?
The experimenters did not observe parrots that were being helped, in turn, pass on the treat to their benefactors. According to Pepperberg, what the study did do was “suggest how important the topic is for further exploration.” In this, she was in agreement with the authors. “We need more data on different parrot species in order to make a robust claim,” Brucks said, “nonetheless, our results give a first hint that parrots do possess the cognitive abilities necessary to help another.”
The research could likely expand in two directions: studies in other parrot species, and looking out for similar behavior in natural conditions. Brucks said she was personally interested in uncovering the mechanisms that underpin helping behavior. This will help answer questions about whether the parrots really understand that their partner needs help, if there is empathy involved, or whether they are just responding to behavioral signals.
Brucks, D., & Von Bayern, A. (2019). Parrots voluntarily help each other to obtain food rewards. Current Biology, 30(1), 1-6. doi:10.1016/j.cub.2019.11.030
(Banner Image: An African grey parrot, named Lizzy, at the Loro Parque zoo in Spain. Image by Anette Mertens)
Malavika Vyawahare is a staff writer for Mongabay. Find her on Twitter: @MalavikaVy
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