Scientists have found for the first time that some birds may voluntarily and spontaneously help familiar others of their species achieve a goal without obvious, immediate benefit to themselves. The study, published in the journal Current Biology, is the first to reveal that a species other than great apes, including humans, can wilfully help others in need, even strangers. According to the researchers, including those from the Max Planck Institute for Ornithology in Germany, parrots and crows are known for having large brains relative to their body size, and problem-solving skills to match these traits.
For that reason, they said, these birds are sometimes considered to be "feathered apes". In the current study, the scientists trained African grey parrots to trade tokens with an experimenter for a nut treat. They found that the parrots were willing to transfer a token to a neighbour parrot, allowing the other individual to earn a nut reward.
"Remarkably, African grey parrots were intrinsically motivated to help others, even if the other individual was not their friend, so they behaved very 'prosocially'," said study co-author Auguste von Bayern from the Max Planck Institute for Ornithology. "It surprised us that 7 out of 8 African grey parrots provided their partner with tokens spontaneously--in their very first trial--thus 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," the ornithologist said.
The researchers believe that the African grey parrots seemed to understand when their help was needed.
They said the birds passed a token over when they could see the other parrot had an opportunity for exchange, but wouldn't otherwise. According to the ornithologists, the parrots would help out irrespective of whether the other individual was their "friend" or not.
However, a bird's relationship to the other individual did have some influence, they said, noting that when the parrot in need of help was a "friend," the helper transferred even more tokens. Based on the findings, the researchers suggested that helping behaviour is not just limited to humans and other great apes, but may have also evolved independently in birds.
However, they said it remains to be seen how widespread the behaviour is across the 393 different parrot species, and what factors influenced its evolution.
Further studies are required to understand the underlying mechanisms of helping behaviour among parrots, addressing questions like how parrots tell when one of their peers needs help, and what motivates them to respond, the researchers said.