African gray parrots (Psittacus erithacus) voluntarily and spontaneously help familiar parrots to achieve a goal, without obvious immediate benefit to themselves, says a duo of researchers from the Max Planck Institute for Ornithology and the Max Planck Comparative Cognition Research Station.
“Parrots and crows are known for having large brains relative to the size of their bodies and problem-solving skills to match. For that reason, they are sometimes considered to be feathered apes,” said Dr. Désirée Brucks and Dr. Auguste von Bayern.
“However, earlier studies showed that, despite their impressive social intelligence, crows don’t help other crows.”
In the new study, the researchers wondered: what about parrots?
To find out, they enlisted several African gray parrots and blue-headed macaws (Primolius couloni).
“We tested two parrot species in an instrumental-helping paradigm involving ‘token transfer’,” they explained.
“Here, actors could provide tokens to their neighbor, who could exchange them with an experimenter for food.”
“To verify whether the parrots understood the task’s contingencies, we systematically varied the presence of a partner and the possibility for exchange.”
Only African gray parrots voluntarily and spontaneously transferred tokens to conspecific partners, whereas significantly fewer transfers occurred in the control conditions.
“Remarkably, African gray parrots were intrinsically motivated to help others, even if the other individual was not their friend, so they behaved very prosocially,” Dr. von Bayern said.
“It surprised us that 7 out of 8 African gray 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.”
“Therefore, the parrots provided help without gaining any immediate benefits and seemingly without expecting reciprocation in return.”
“Importantly, the African gray parrots appeared to understand when their help was needed. When they could see the other parrot had an opportunity for exchange, they’d pass a token over. Otherwise, they wouldn’t.”
The parrots would help out whether the other individual was their ‘friend’ or not. But, their relationship to the other individual did have some influence. When the parrot in need of help was a ‘friend,’ the helper transferred even more tokens.
“The difference between African gray parrots and blue-headed macaws may relate to differences in their social organization in the wild,” the scientists said.
“Despite those species differences, the findings show that helping behavior is not limited to humans and great apes but evolved independently also in birds.”
“It remains to be seen how widespread helping is across the 393 different parrot species and what factors may have led to its evolution.”
“Further studies are required to investigate the underlying mechanisms of the parrots’ helping behavior. For instance, how do parrots tell when one of their peers needs help? And, what motivates them to respond?”
The study was published in the journal Current Biology.
Désirée Brucks & Auguste M.P. von Bayern. 2020. Parrots Voluntarily Help Each Other to Obtain Food Rewards. Current Biology 30 (2): 292-297; doi: 10.1016/j.cub.2019.11.030