Selfless African Gray Parrots Get By With a Little Help From Friends

(CN) – African gray parrots have a natural desire to help their fellow parrots gain access to treats and have an innate ability to determine when and how their help is needed, according to a study released Thursday.

The study, published in the journal Current Biology, details how scientists undertook an effort to better understand what kind of help intelligent bird species are willing to offer to their feathered counterparts when called upon.

This image shows African gray parrots Nikki and Jack exchanging tokens with one another. (Photo courtesy of Anastasia Krasheninnikova)

Researchers were specifically interested in the fact that previous research efforts have shown that crows, a species well known for their intelligence and social awareness, have little interest in helping other crows. This led scientists to wonder if the same held true for another bird group known for their brain power: parrots.

Researchers devised an experiment in which a series of African gray parrots, as well as blue-headed macaws, were encouraged to exchange a small token with one another so that the parrot who had a token could receive a nut. Researchers found that only African gray parrots were willing to share a token with a neighboring parrot in order for that neighbor to earn a treat.

Scientist noted that this choice to help their neighboring parrots was not something the parrots were trained or groomed to do. Most parrots the researchers tested in this experiment gave up their token to help another on the first attempt completely spontaneously, suggesting that parrots have a natural, raw motivation to help their fellow parrots.

Désirée Brucks of the Max Planck Institute for Ornithology in Germany and co-author of the study said that one of the most fascinatingly discoveries of this research is the shocking similarities in helpful behaviors found between parrots and other species – such as human toddlers.

“One of the important implications of our study is that fact that a parrot species exhibited a behavior very similar to great apes (i.e. bonobos and orangutans) and human toddlers (from 12 months on),” Brucks said in an email. “This is interesting, as birds and mammals shared their last common ancestor around 300 million years ago and this indicates that similar ecological and social pressures acting on parrots and primates, can lead to the evolution of the same behavior.”

Researchers also found that while a parrot had a natural interest to help other parrots, they were equally capable of understanding when that help was needed in the first place.

If a parrot could see that giving a token to a parrot would not actually result in the other parrot receiving a treat, the parrot would simply not bother. But if a parrot could tell that a token would actually help the other parrot get a treat, they would pass the token right along.

The parrots were even shown to display some small favoritism behaviors. Researchers found that if a parrot were paired with another “friend” parrot, they were more likely to pass along tokens. If two unfriendly parrots were paired together, fewer tokens would be shared.

One factor that continues to fascinate researchers in these findings is how exactly these behaviors came to exist in parrots in the first place.

While apes and humans have evolved with these kinds of sharing behaviors, African gray parrots have somehow learned these behaviors completely independently. This has led researchers to wonder just how many other parrot species out in the world have developed these same remarkable behaviors over the course of their evolutionary histories.

Brucks says while these findings help to shed much light on African gray parrots, there are still quite a lot of questions to be answered regarding these parrots and the mysteries that surround their behavior.

“There is still need for future research to understand the underlying mechanisms involved in the helping behaviors of African gray parrots (i.e. how do they perceive their partner’s need?) as well as finding out about the prevalence of helping behaviors in other parrot species, which show a similar social organization as African gray parrots,” Brucks said. “I think there is still lots to discover in parrots and there definitely is a reason why they are also referred to as ‘feathered apes.’”

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