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African grey parrots are surprisingly prosocial and unselfish

Updated: Mar 9

In the behavioral experiments, the parrots helped their fellow parrots to obtain food without immediate benefit to themselves.

Parrots are the most clever ones among birds - many studies have already proven this. But now an experiment reveals a further, surprising mental achievement with African grey parrots: They help conspecifics even if they themselves do not profit directly from it.

In an experiment, the birds handed over their own food tokens so that their neighbour could get a treat, but initially they themselves went away empty-handed. This form of spontaneous prosocial behaviour without any immediate reward was previously only known from humans and great apes, but not from the bird kingdom, as the researchers report. The crows and ravens, which are also very intelligent, do not exhibit this behavior, and blue-headed macaws also did not share their food tokens in experiments.

For a long time, birds were considered to be rather mentally inferior because they lack the cerebral cortex, which is considered the seat of intelligence in humans and other mammals. But in the meantime, it is mainly crows and parrots that have taught us better in this respect. In their social behaviour, crows and parrots sometimes exhibit quite human-like features. These birds have mastered the art of using and producing tools, understand causal relationships, plan ahead and can even pick complicated locks, as experiments have shown.

How far the prosocial attitude of the birds extends?

Crows share food, but do not actively help other birds to obtain it. A willingness to help without immediate personal gain has so far only been known from some mammals, but not from birds, as Désirée Brucks and Auguste von Bayern from the Max Planck Institute for Ornithology in Seewiesen explain.

The two researchers have now tested in an experiment how helpful the grey parrots are, which are regarded as particularly intelligent. Two test animals were placed in adjacent test chambers. The birds had previously learned that they could exchange tokens in the form of round metal tags with the researchers for a food reward.

One of the two parrots now received some of these tokens, but could not exchange them because the opening provided for them was blocked. The exchange hole of his conspecific was however accessible, and there was also an opening between the two chambers of the parrots. In addition, the parrot could see that its neighbour did not have any tokens. How would the grey parrot behave in this situation?

As the researchers observed, almost all grey parrots in the test showed astonishingly social behaviour. Researchers were surprised that seven of eight grey parrots spontaneously handed over the tokens to their partners - already in the first test run.

The birds accepted the fact that they now had fewer or no tokens themselves. Nevertheless, they shared, without knowing whether their conspecific would return the favor in the future. The parrots helped without having any immediate benefits from it and apparently without expecting anything in return, said von Bayern.

However, this help was by no means random or coincidental: The grey parrots only gave their tokens when they saw that their neighbour's exchange opening was open and he could therefore buy food. However, if the opening of the neighbor was also blocked, they saved themselves the trouble and did not hand over any tokens.

Parrots are surprisingly prosocial

As the scientists explain, this is the first study to demonstrate such voluntary prosocial behaviour in a non-mammalian. The grey parrots do not only help conspecifics to get food without direct return, they also recognize when a conspecific can and cannot benefit from their help. According to previous scientific findings, apart from humans, only great apes behave so apparently selflessly in comparable situations.

All other animals tested so far do not pay attention to how their conspecifics are doing. They behave apparently indifferently or even act selfishly. The grey parrots, on the other hand, have understood that another individual needs help to achieve a goal, says Brucks. The inclination to help was particularly pronounced when the parrots knew their neighbours better - a behaviour that should not be foreign to us humans either.

According to the researchers, the prosocial, altruistic behaviour of the grey parrots might be closely related to their way of life - the birds stay together with their partner for life. When you are as closely connected to your partner as parrots are, it doesn't matter whether the other one gets off better one day, explains von Bayern. What counts is to achieve more together in the long run than alone, and to raise the young together.

Interestingly enough, however, neighbourhood assistance does not seem to be equally strong for all parrot species. Because a supplementary experiment with blue-headed macaws showed that this parrot species reacts much less prosocially: These birds almost never gave tokens to their needy neighbours, as Brucks and von Bayern report. Possibly, so they suppose, this is connected with superordinate differences in the social behavior and the way of life of these birds.