‘African grey parrots giving out help in human-like behaviour’

14Jan 2020
Washington DC
The Guardian
‘African grey parrots giving out help in human-like behaviour’

RESEARCH has found that apart from humans, some birds--especially African grey parrots--have similar tendencies.

The study, published in Current Biology  mid last week, states that humans and other great apes have the willingness to help others - going out of their way even if the help seeker is a stranger. Birds from specific family spread their wing of help in a similar manner.

“We found that African grey parrots voluntarily and spontaneously help familiar parrots to achieve a goal, without obvious immediate benefit to them,” says study co-author Desiree Brucks of the Max Planck Institute for Ornithology, Germany.

To ascertain this fact, the researchers listed out a number of African grey parrots and blue-headed macaws. Both the species from the parrot family were willing to exchange tokens for nut treats. However, only the grey parrots wanted to give away their tokens to a neighbouring parrot, allowing them to taste the nut treats as well.

Parrots and crows have large brains in proportion to their body size and problem-solving skills to match. For that reason, they are at times considered as “feathered apes,” explain Brucks and study co-author Auguste von Bayern.

However, earlier studies have explained that in spite of their impressive social intelligence, crows have not been seen to help other crows. In the newest study, Brucks and von Bayern solve the puzzles about parrots.

“Remarkably, African grey parrots were intrinsically motivated to help others, even if the other individual was not their friend, so they behaved very ‘pro-socially,” Bayern says.

 “Surprisingly 7 out of 8 African grey parrots provided their partner with tokens, spontaneously and 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.”

An important note according to the study is that these 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 researchers suggest that African greys and blue-headed macaws have differences in their behaviour which may relate to their separate social organization in the wild.

Despite those species differences, the findings show that helping behaviour is not limited to humans and great apes but evolved independently also in birds.

It remains to be seen how widespread helping 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 mechanisms of the parrots’ helping behaviour. For instance, how do parrots tell when one of their peers needs help? And, what motivates them to respond?