For the first time, altruistic behaviors have been seen in birds in a lab setting. African grey parrots (Psittacus erithacus) will spontaneously help each other obtain food even when there is no obvious benefit to the helper, according to a new study published in Current Biology yesterday (January 9).
Désirée Brucks of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich and Auguste von Bayern of the Max Planck Institute for Ornithology in Germany studied helping behavior in eight African grey parrots. They placed two parrots at a time into an enclosure separated by a wall with a small hole. One parrot was given small metal tokens to pass to the other parrot, which could then exchange them for nuts from a researcher. But the parrot originally given the tokens did not have any access to food. Transferring the tokens only helped the other bird obtain the snack.
The birds appear to have understood when their help was needed, and weren’t passing the tokens out of playfulness. When they could see the other parrot had an opportunity to get food, they’d give a token, and when the food was taken away, they’d withhold them. They were more likely to give tokens to familiar parrots, but “remarkably, African grey parrots were intrinsically motivated to help others, even if the other individual was not their friend,” von Bayern says in a news release. “The parrots provided help without gaining any immediate benefits and seemingly without expecting reciprocation in return.”
D. Brucks, A.M.P. von Bayern, “Parrots voluntarily help each other to obtain food rewards,” Curr Biol, doi:10.1016/j.cub.2019.11.030, 2019.
Emily Makowski is an intern at The Scientist. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.