RESEARCH: African Grey Parrots help other parrots

African grey parrots voluntarily and spontaneously help other parrots to achieve a goal, without obvious immediate benefit to themselves. Research co-author Désirée Brucks of the Max Planck Institute for Ornithology, Germany, announced this result in January 2020.

Parrots and crows are known for having large brains relative to the size of their bodies, and that they are good at problem-solving. However, earlier studies showed that crows don’t help other crows, so researchers wondered whether parrots help other parrots, explained Désirée Brucks and study co-author Auguste von Bayern.

In their new study, Brucks and von Bayern enlisted several African Grey Parrots and Blue-Headed Macaws to help the research team.

African Grey Parrot

Both parrot species were eager to trade tokens with a researcher for a nut treat. But, their findings show, only the African Grey Parrots were willing to transfer a token to another parrot, allowing the other parrot to earn a nut reward.

“Remarkably, African Grey Parrots were intrinsically motivated to help others, even if the other individual was not their friend,'” von Bayern says. 

“It surprised us that seven out of eight African Grey Parrots provided another parrot with tokens spontaneously—in their very first trial—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, she notes, the African Grey 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, she adds. But, their relationship to the other parrot did have some influence. When the parrot in need of help was a “friend,” the parrot with the tokens transferred even more tokens to the parrot in need.

The researchers suggest the difference between African Grey Parrots and Blue-Headed Macaws may relate to differences in their social organization in the wild. It remains to be seen how widespread the ‘helping behaviour’ is across the 393 different parrot species and what factors may have led to its evolution. The researchers say that further studies are required to investigate the underlying reasons for the parrots’ helping behaviour. For instance, how do parrots know when one of the other parrots needs help? And, what motivates them to respond?

African Grey Parrot
African Grey Parrot
African Grey Parrot

Reference: Cell Press. “African grey parrots spontaneously ‘lend a wing’.” ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 9 January 2020, and Désirée Brucks, Auguste M.P. von Bayern. Parrots Voluntarily Help Each Other to Obtain Food RewardsCurrent Biology, 2020; DOI: 10.1016/j.cub.2019.11.030

Photographer: Martina Nicolls


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