African grey parrots are known for their intelligence but now researchers say it’s their kindness to each other that’s intriguing.
The endangered parrots – their numbers are decreasing in a habitat that stretches from West Africa to Kenya – were part of an experiment to see how they behave when cooperation was needed to get food rewards.
Scientists from the Max Planck Institute for Ornithology facility in the Canary Islands built a clear box with two chambers so that parrot friends Bella and Kimmi were separated but could see each other. On one side, Bella has plenty of little metal-ring tokens to exchange for treats but no window to pass them through to the human.
On the other side, Kimmi has an open window to get treats but no tokens to trade for food. There is an open window between them, though, so Bella readily understands the problem and gives the tokens to Kimmi.
It’s Kimmi that gets all the food treats, but Bella doesn’t seem to mind and has no reason to expect anything in return. When the researchers turn the tables, Kimmi reciprocates and gives her tokens to Bella to “buy” treats.
When the box windows are configured so that there is no reward for either parrot, they don’t bother to transfer the tokens, suggesting that they both understand what the helping behavior is for.
“Our parrots indeed seem to have grasped that another individual requires their help in order to achieve a goal,” says Désirée Brucks, lead author of the study.
Brucks, who studies altruism and helping behaviors, said the sophisticated helping behavior is seen only in humans and other primates – though perhaps it’s Kimmi and Bella who have the better lesson for us all.
To see the complete research published in the journal Current Biology, check this link.
Image: Max Planck Institute for Ornithology