Helping others is a key feature of human behavior but it’s not necessarily something exclusive to humans, according to a new study. Researchers found birds care about the fate of conspecific birds, noticing how much food others have and sharing theirs with individuals that are going hungry.
Food-sharing observed among humans in daily-life events such as dinner parties, and there is evidence that this was present even in pre-historic humans. But food-sharing is also relatively common in the wild, especially between individuals and their offspring.
“My earlier research has shown that birds also sometimes do something for someone else,” said Jorg Massen, lead-author, in a statement. “The question was, however, whether this is an instinctive behavior that is ingrained, or whether this behavior is flexible, and whether these birds might also take into account how great the need of the other animal is.”
To investigate sociality in birds, Massen worked with Azure-winged magpies in an experiment. He gave one bird an abundance of mealworms, a popular delicacy for these birds, while the rest had limited access or were given nothing at all. The magpie had the chance to share the mealworms through a wire mesh.
The researchers found out that the birds were inclined to share food with their peers. They differentiate, however, between others that have or do not have food, and subsequently cater to that lack. Females shared with the ones that had nothing, while males always shared, likely as a way to showcase themselves as generous.
The magpies were more inclined to share food as a response to begging but would share with those less fortunate even if they weren’t asked. This shows that they might truly notice the need of others, even without specific behavior from other birds. They may even show sympathy, according to Massen.
The study shows that magpies can exhibit prosocial behavior just like people, and that they may well have the same motivation as we do to engage in such behavior. This might indicate that they can empathize with the situation in which their peers find themselves and act accordingly. Still, further work is needed to tell if this is the case.
At the same time, the research also confirmed what scientists previously found in other animal species: cooperative breeders that raise their young together have a strong tendency to help each other.
“Because we let our children grow up in groups, we have become prosocial and can work well together. We now also see this in the azure-winged magpies,” said Massen.
The study was published in the journal Scientific Reports.