African grey parrots will help out their friends, even if they won’t personally benefit, an adorable new lab experiment shows.
Selflessly helping peers isn’t a common trait in the animal world—scientists have seen only a few mammal species behaving this way. After all, altruism doesn’t benefit an individual in a species unless it’s part of a social-enough group that it can expect some sort of reciprocity in the future. But African grey parrots are intelligent, highly social birds, and they are now the first bird species to exhibit this kind of helping behavior in the lab.
“This showed that, yes, they have advanced social cognitive abilities,” Désirée Brucks, the study’s first author from the Max Planck Institute for Ornithology, told Gizmodo. “They’re often called the feathered apes, along with the corvids,” a group that includes crows, ravens, jays, and magpies. “It’s interesting that they show similar behavior to primates, even thought they’re not related to all.”
The researchers set up trials between eight African grey parrots, six females and two males. The birds had previously learned to trade metal washers through a hole for snacks. For this trial, each bird was in a clear-walled compartment separated by a window. One bird’s compartment had a hole that opened to the experimenter (and the treats), while the other bird’s didn’t. Seven of the eight birds in the inaccessible compartment gave at least one token to their partner so the partner could receive a treat from the experimenter. When their partner’s treat window was closed, or when they had no partner at all, the parrots passed fewer tokens through the hole—suggesting the reason they passed tokens was to help their friend receive a treat.
Somewhat surprisingly, when the researchers tried the same experiment on blue-headed macaws, another highly social bird, the macaws almost never transferred a token to their partner. The researchers noted that when the groups of birds ate, African grey parrots shared a bowl, while blue-headed macaws fed on their own. The researchers hypothesized that perhaps varying social behaviors around food could have something to do with the differences, according to the paper published in Current Biology.
Other bird species have been seen helping non-family members, such as by sharing food, in the lab. But the authors report that these new results go even deeper; African grey parrots must first see that the partner behind the panel is in need, recognize that they could indirectly help with the task, and then help without the promise of a reward for themselves. It’s unclear if the parrots performed the task with the expectation of reciprocal help in the future; that remains up to further study, the authors write.
Obviously, this is a relatively small study on captive-raised parrots. But it demonstrates that these social habits have evolved separately in vastly different species. Next, the researchers hope to test the experimental setup on other parrots, like cockatoos, to further understand what about a species might lead to altruistic behavior.