Compared to many of their feathered relatives, parrots are smart. Very smart indeed. They know how to share, use tools, and even throw shapes to Queen and Cyndi Lauper. Now they’ve been caught doing something thought unique to humans and other great apes – they help out their pals even when there’s nothing in it for them.
Along with corvids like crows and magpies, parrots are some of the world’s smartest avians. Previous research has failed to observe acts of selflessness by crows, so a team from the Max Planck Institute for Ornithology decided to investigate whether the same was true for parrots.
At the Loro Parque research station in Tenerife, they examined the behavior of two species of parrot, the African grey parrot and the blue-headed macaw. The birds were trained to understand that if they handed a researcher a token, they would receive a tasty nutty treat in return. Once they’d learned this trick, a parrot would be placed in a transparent box next to another bird of the same species, also in a transparent box. There was a small hole in the wall between the two parrots, and a hole in an outer wall of one of the parrots’ enclosure.
The aim of the game was still the same; give a human a token and get a snack in return. Amazingly, the researchers observed African grey parrots that could not pass their tokens directly to a human instead passing the tokens through the hole to the other parrot, who was then able to exchange them for treats. This is evidence of selflessness as the generous birds got nothing out of helping their neighbor as they received no reward.
"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,” said study co-author Auguste von Bayern in a statement. The findings are published in Current Biology.
The scientists found that while the parrots were happy to donate tokens to mere acquaintances, they tended to give more help to their friends, much like humans would.
Even though the African greys showed how selfless they were, the blue-headed macaws did not, suggesting that acting selflessly is not universal across parrot species. The researchers now hope to test how other parrot species react to the experiment to try to work out what evolutionary pressures might have led some birds to behave in this way while others don’t bother.
As for the African greys and blue-headed macaws, the team thinks the difference might be to do with the size of their flocks in the wild. African greys live in groups of over 1,000, while blue-headed macaws have gangs of about 20, so they’ve likely had to develop more advanced social skills to thrive in such a vast pandemonium of parrots.