New research at the Max Planck Institute for Ornithology, Germany found that African grey parrots will help their peers even if they don’t gain anything from it. The findings could help inform how altruism and prosocial behavior evolved in humans.
Us humans, along with some of our great ape relatives, like to stick together. Part of that involves helping out those in need, even if we don’t get anything back. Such prosocial behavior helps strengthen the bonds between individual members, thus strengthening the group overall, and improving our collective chances to survive and procreate (the end goal of evolution).
It would be easy to chalk it up to our intelligence — it makes sense to help those in need so that they will help us in turn. To the best of our knowledge however, crows, despite being social and intelligent birds, don’t really help each other out. In an effort to find the root of such prosocial behavior, the team behind the new study worked with two species of parrots and observed whether they would offer help to their peers and if so, under which conditions.
Token of goodwill
“We found that African grey parrots voluntarily and spontaneously help familiar parrots to achieve a goal, without obvious immediate benefit to themselves,” says study co-author Désirée Brucks of the Max Planck Institute for Ornithology, Germany.
Parrots have large brains for their body size, giving them quite a fair share of cognitive oomph. As a group, they are known for having excellent problem-solving skills and, as anyone who has one for a pet knows, a great need for interaction and stimulation.
The team worked with several African grey parrots and blue-headed macaws. For the experiment, the animals were placed in paired-up boxes with holes cut into the sides so that each bird could interact with the researchers and one another. The animals were trained to trade tokens with a human in return for a nut. They could cash the token in themselves or pass it over to their neighbor, allowing the other bird to earn a treat instead.
While both species were eager to trade with the experimenters, only the African grey parrots were willing to give the token to their neighbor. They would do so regardless of the relationship between themselves and their neighbors, the team found. The drive to help someone even if they aren’t a friend is a very prosocial behavior, the team explains.
“It surprised us that 7 out of 8 African grey parrots provided their partner with tokens spontaneously–in their very first trial–thus without having experienced the social setting of this task before and without knowing that they would be tested in the other role later on,” von Bayern explains.
“Therefore, the parrots provided help without gaining any immediate benefits and seemingly without expecting reciprocation in return.”
Another very interesting find was that the parrots seemed to understand whether their neighbor needed help or not. They would only pass a token on if their partner had the opportunity to make an exchange (i.e. the experimenter was interacting with them) but no token to give. Otherwise, they would keep it. They would do this regardless of whether their partner was their friend or not, Bayern explains. However, if they were paired up with a friend, the helper would send even more tokens their way.
As to why the African greys engaged in such behavior while the blue-headed macaws did not, the team explains that it likely comes down to differences in their social structures in the wild.
Regardless of why, the findings show that helpful behavior isn’t an exclusive prerogative of great apes, but can (and did) independently evolve in other lineages. Exactly how widespread it is among the 393 known parrot species remains to be seen. There are still many questions to explore, the team adds: for example, what drives these helpful behaviors in parrots? What motivates them? And how can the birds tell when one of their peers needs help?
Personally, I like to think they’re just nice and considerate, despite their sometimes obnoxious and loud nature.
The paper “Parrots voluntarily help each other to obtain food rewards” has been published in the journal Current Biology.