Altruism in the animal kingdom is about doing something nice for someone else that comes at an expense to yourself. You might not imagine vampire bats to be among the world’s most charitable animals, but they’ve been observed in the wild regurgitating blood for group members who failed to feed. As a behavior it’s something of a surprise, evolutionarily speaking, as encouraging the survival of strangers doesn’t directly encourage the continuation of your genetic material, whereas helping your kin does.
Somewhere between selfishness and selflessness sit behaviors like prosocial helping and reciprocity, which is motivated by a common goal or as a means of maintaining mutually beneficial relationships, respectively speaking. Both of these behaviors have been seen in mammals but, until now, never experimentally observed in birds. New research published in the journal Current Biology has demonstrated that while Blue-headed macaws have little interest in helping their neighbors, African Grey parrots do.
To come to these conclusions, the researchers on the study carried out an experiment where birds were given tokens that could be traded for food. They were able to establish if the birds understood the token trade by switching up the presence of a neighboring bird and the availability of trade (aka, the researcher with the goods).
Their observations revealed that African grey parrots (who love to swear) would voluntarily and spontaneously pass tokens to transfer treats to other African greys. This charitable behavior increased among birds who were familiar, and in instances where the researcher with the treats was vying for their attention. The sharing and caring didn’t stop there, as birds who were once tokenless and helped by their neighbors then returned the favor when the tables were turned, reciprocating the charitable act in passing tokens. You can watch two participants, Bella and Kimmi, demonstrating that sharing is caring below. No such generosity among Blue-headed macaws, on the other hand, who were rarely observed passing tokens in favor of keeping the precious currency all to themselves.
While this kind of instrumental helping, driven by a social attitude and reciprocity, wasn’t observed in both species, that it exists at all among birds is interesting. The study authors conclude that the existence of altruistic behavior like this in African Grey parrots may point towards the possibility that it evolved convergently in birds and mammals.
As for me, I’m with the macaws on this. Get your own damn tokens.
[H/T: National Geographic]