Humans and some other mammals stand out among animals by showing kindness and helping other individuals in need. But do birds also demonstrate selflessness? The answer is “yes” — at least in the case of the African gray parrot.
Altruism — the act of offering help to someone in need even if it does not benefit you — is a quality on which humans have prided themselves through the ages.
However, we are not the only ones in the animal kingdom who can demonstrate selflessness. Other mammals — including wolves, bonobos, and humpback whales — are also adept at helping other members of their species when they are called upon to do so.
Now, Désirée Brucks and Auguste von Bayern from the Max Planck Institute for Ornithology in Seewiesen, Germany, have carried out research that suggests that individuals from one parrot species also demonstrate the ability to be selfless.
The findings — which appear in Current Biology — place the African gray parrot in the limelight.
African gray parrots show altruism
In their study, the researchers worked not only with African gray parrots — native to regions of equatorial Africa — but also with blue-headed macaws, their South American “cousins.”
Brucks and von Bayern trained eight African gray parrots and six blue-headed macaws, noting in their study paper that both species are remarkable thanks to their intelligence.
The first step in the experiment was to teach all of the parrots to give the researcher a token, in exchange for which they would receive a nut as a reward.
Soon enough, all of the birds had learned the trick — hand over a token, receive a nut. Next, the investigators wanted to see whether they would be just as eager to help a partner receive the reward as they were to get it themselves.
To this purpose, Brucks and von Bayern housed pairs of parrots of the same species in a specially built chamber that separated them from one another and the researcher, with small openings for access and communication.
The researchers gave one parrot the tokens, but no way of handing them to the researcher to obtain the nuts. The other parrot, in contrast, could reach the researcher but had no tokens to offer in exchange for the nuts.
In each case, the tokenless parrot would signal to its partner, asking for help. The question was, of course: Would the parrot with the tokens hand them over to the tokenless parrot, knowing that only the other parrot would then be able to claim the reward?
As it turns out, the blue-headed macaws were not at all eager to help each other. As the parrot with the tokens would be unable to claim any nuts, neither would its partner.
This was not at all the case with the African gray parrots. Seven out of the eight African gray parrots involved chose to help out their partner by giving them tokens so that they could claim the nuts.
Moreover, when the researchers reversed the roles of the African gray parrots, the ones who now held the tokens were happy to share them with the partners who had formerly helped them out. This finding, the researchers argue, suggests that these parrots may even have some understanding of reciprocity.
Brucks and von Bayern were further impressed by the fact that African gray parrots chose to help each other even if they were not related to the individual with whom the researchers had paired them.
This further suggests that individuals from this species simply feel motivated to help each other, regardless of their relationship, which is unusual. The researchers explain that, typically, animals are much more likely to help related individuals and feel no motivation to assist those with whom they have no relationship.
In contrast, the blue-headed macaws persisted in demonstrating selfishness, even in other experiments. For example, when the researchers offered the birds a bowl of food that they were all supposed to feed from, the dominant individual in the group dragged the bowl away from the other birds to make sure that they would not be able to access it.
Why do the members of two intelligent bird species act so differently, though? The researchers remain unsure, but they hypothesize that it may be due to the fact that they organize their social groups in different ways. In the study paper, Brucks and von Bayern write:
“Species-specific differences in social tolerance, in particular in a food context, might account for variation in prosocial behaviors across parrot species.”
African gray parrots live in large flocks whose members change continually, whereas the blue-headed macaws like to organize themselves in smaller groups with stricter hierarchies.
The researchers would like to learn more about why the birds act in the way that they do. There is, however, a certain difficulty in studying the birds’ natural behavior in the wild. According to International Union for Conservation of Nature data, the blue-headed macaw’s status is “vulnerable,” with populations rapidly decreasing in the wild, and experts now consider the African gray parrot to be an endangered species.