African Grey Parrots Surprise Researchers With Their Altruism

©. Claude Weiss

Few other animals are known to be intrinsically motivated to assist others in need.

Parrots are smart. Along with crows, parrots have big beautiful brains relative to the size of their bodies – and they have a talent for solving problems as well. Because of this, they are sometimes referred to as "feathered apes," say the authors of a new study on African grey parrots.

Despite their social intelligence, however, research has shown that crows don't help other crows. They can use tools and figure out complicated puzzles, but when it comes to lending a hand to help a crow in need, it's no go.

Knowing that parrots also have impressive social intelligence, scientists Désirée Brucks and Auguste von Bayern – from the Max Planck Institute for Ornithology, Germany – decided to see if they have an altruistic side.

"We found that African grey parrots voluntarily and spontaneously help familiar parrots to achieve a goal, without obvious immediate benefit to themselves," says Brucks.

To come to this conclusion, they enlisted a group of African grey parrots and blue-headed macaws. Both parrot species easily figured out the game of trading tokens with an experimenter for a nut to eat – but the African grey parrots went a step beyond in giving a token to a neighbor that did not have one.

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

Amazingly, the African grey parrots seemed to understand when their assistance was needed. They would only pass a token over when they could see the other parrot had an opportunity to get a reward. And while they would offer tokens to stranger birds, if the parrot was next to a "friend," they would transfer even more tokens.

How did these parrots become so helpful? The researchers suggest that the behavior is borne from their social organization in the wild. But many questions remain; the authors now wonder how common is this across the 393 different parrot species and what factors may have led to its evolution? How do parrots tell when one of their peers needs help? And, what motivates them to respond?

Thus far, other than humans, only some great apes species behave similarly selfless towards unrelated individuals in comparable studies, explains the Max Planck Institute in a story about the research. Adding this notable nugget:

"The research team has shown in a third recent study that parrots apparently are not jealous if a conspecific receives a better payoff for the same work performance than themselves, or has to work less hard for the same payoff. 'At first, this finding came as a surprise, given that a "sense of fairness" is considered a prerequisite for the evolution of cooperation', says Bayern."

"Whereas the parrots remained easygoing, primates, for example, do not put up with such an unequal treatment but show clear signs of anger and at some point boycott the unfair game."

So there you have it. Blessed are the birds, they are better than us.

The research was published in Current Biology.