Are Animals Willing to Help One Another?

Parrots are famous for mimicking their human keepers, but a new study suggests that maybe we should be copying their behavior instead.

In addition to being known for their impressive intelligence, African grey parrots have also demonstrated kindness to other members of their species.
In addition to being known for their impressive intelligence, African grey parrots have also demonstrated kindness to other members of their species.

Scientists placed a pair of African grey parrots in side-by-side cages through which they could have some interaction. One parrot was given a pile of tokens, while the other had access to a window that would award a treat in exchange for a token -- which that parrot did not have.

Both parrots had been trained to understand the mechanism beforehand, but what stunned the researchers was how quickly the bird with the tokens figured out that it could not receive treats on its side, but that its neighbor could, if only the other bird had some tokens.

In repeated experiments, the parrot in the first cage always gave up its tokens to its neighbor. "It was not just one token," said researcher Désirée Brucks, a biologist at ETH Zürich in Switzerland. "Many of them transferred all 10 tokens, one after the other, always watching how their partner got the food for it, whereas they themselves did not get anything."

The altruistic nature of the birds was further proven when, without their foreknowledge, the researchers swapped the birds so that the token-giver became the potential receiver -- with identical results.

"It's very shocking," said Peggy Mason, a neurobiologist at the University of Chicago. "It's surprisingly giving, just because the only thing the bird doing it gets is that warm glow of helping." As of now, the pay-it-forward kindness of the parrots has not been seen in other birds. Both blue-headed macaws and ravens were tested in similar experiments, but neither behaved in the same generous manner as the African grey parrots.

Copy that:

  • Parrots don't have vocal cords like humans, but rather an organ called a syrinx located at the base of the trachea.

  • Before his death at the age of 31, an African grey parrot named Alex learned more than 100 words in English and appeared on TV and in news and scientific reports.

  • African grey parrots are monogamous; the female typically nests alone in the small hollow of a tree and hatches two or three eggs.

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