20 Healthy Tips for 2020 20 Healthy Tips for 2020

ADVERTISEMENT

Like Some Mammals, These Birds Put Others First

Analysis by Dr. Karen Shaw Becker

african grey parrots

Story at-a-glance -

  • African grey parrots voluntarily help each other to obtain food rewards, even if there’s no incentive in it for themselves
  • First, the birds were taught to give a researcher a metal washer, or token, in exchange for a food reward
  • Birds then had an option to give tokens to a fellow bird that could hand the token in for a reward (but could not receive the reward themselves)
  • Seven out of eight African grey parrots acted selflessly, passing tokens to a fellow bird so they could receive a reward
  • In contrast, the blue-headed macaws were far less interested in sharing tokens with other macaws, transferring “hardly any” tokens to other birds
  • As for why the African greys helped out their partners much more than the macaws, the researchers suggested differences in social tolerance may be involved, particularly in a food context

African grey parrots and blue-headed macaws are both notable for their high intelligence, but have differences when it comes to performing selfless acts.

Acts of altruism — a selfless concern for the well-being of others — have been demonstrated by certain mammal species, including wolves and humpback whales, but a study published in Current Biology represents the first time such voluntary prosocial behavior has been demonstrated in a nonmammalian species.1

In short, the study revealed that parrots voluntarily help each other to obtain food rewards, even if there’s no incentive in it for themselves. It’s a puzzle, evolutionarily speaking, why individuals help others even when it poses a cost to themselves, but it’s a trait that appears to be more widespread than may be appreciated.

African Grey Parrots Display Altruism

To find out whether birds have the capacity to be selfless, researchers from the Max Planck Institute for Ornithology in Seewiesen, Germany, designed an experiment involving eight African gray parrots and six blue-headed macaws.

First, the birds were taught to give the researcher a metal washer, or token, in exchange for a food reward (a nut). The birds quickly picked up on the trick, at which time the researchers turned to finding out whether the birds would use their newfound trick to help a fellow bird.

Pairs of birds were housed in a clear enclosure, with small openings to exchange tokens. One bird received tokens, but the hole was covered, so it couldn’t give them to the researcher. The other bird had access to an unobstructed hole to reach the researcher, but didn’t have tokens. The birds had access to one another via a third, unobstructed hole.

Nearly all of the parrots turned out to be quite selfless, with seven out of eight passing tokens through the hole to the bird without tokens. The receiving bird then passed it to the researcher to receive a food reward.

The birds were tested with “friend” birds, with which they had a close bond, and birds they were less close with. In both instances, tokens were passed to the other birds, although more tokens were passed to birds that were “friends.”

Also, when their roles were reversed, the parrots shared tokens with partners that had previously shared with them, which suggests they may have some understanding of reciprocity.2 Altogether, African grey parrots gave 157 out of 320 tokens to their fellow birds.3

In contrast, the macaws were far less interested in sharing tokens with other macaws, but were more likely to do so if the researcher was present, which suggests they may have been trying to hand it to the human, not the other bird.4 Study author Auguste von Bayern of Oxford University told Science Alert:

"Remarkably, African grey parrots were intrinsically motivated to help others, even if the other individual was not their friend, so they behaved very 'prosocially.’

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.

Therefore, the parrots provided help without gaining any immediate benefits and seemingly without expecting reciprocation in return."5

Advertisement
Click here to find out Dr. Becker's 20 Pet Tips for a Healthy 2020Click here to find out Dr. Becker's 20 Pet Tips for a Healthy 2020

Why Did African Greys, but not Macaws, Act Selflessly?

As for why the macaws transferred “hardly any” tokens to their conspecific partners, the researchers suggested differences in social tolerance may be involved, particularly in a food context.6 Blue-headed macaws, for instance, are known to have strict hierarchies, whereas African grey parrots’ large flocks have continually changing members.7

Separate research has also shown that African grey parrots aren’t averse to seeing another parrot get a better treat, perhaps because they’re known to mate for life.8 Von Bayern, who was involved in this study as well, said in a news release:

“Given that parrots are so closely bonded with a single individual and thus so mutually interdependent, it does not make any difference if one of them gets a better pay-off once in a while.

What counts is that together, they function as a unit that can achieve much more than each of them on their own (in addition to raising their joint offspring). This is probably why parrots are much more tolerant towards unequal treatment than species that are not long-term monogamous, while still being excellent cooperators.”9

The featured study is one of the latest to show the complex intelligence of African grey parrots. Toward this end, if you are interested in sharing your home with one of these fascinating creatures, be aware that they’re high-maintenance birds that require a great deal of specialized care, including social interaction and mental stimulation on par with what you would give to at least a preschooler, to avoid developing behavioral problems.

If you’re willing to put in the effort, and take time to understand their many needs, these birds can make wonderful pets — but never buy one from a pet shop. Unfortunately, many parrots find themselves abandoned at rescues after their owners couldn’t care for them properly, so I highly recommend you contact your local animal shelter and exotic bird sanctuaries in your area if you’re interested in a bird as a pet.