Avian Expert Articles

A Test To See If Parrots Are Willing To Help Each Other

The awesome and intricate tapestry of humanity is made up of variable thread types. Those threads represent a myriad of personal and worldwide outlooks and approaches to our interaction with others. There are multiple shades of colors and thicknesses that showcase just how variable humanity is in its dealings in a big world. These things most of us already know. We see the news. We read human interest stories. And we know our own hearts as it reaches out (or not) to others. By and large, we are a beautiful collection of people who want the best for others.

But what about animals? Do they exhibit displays of kindness and putting others before themselves, sometimes at their own deprivation? Of course, they do. We’ve seen countless videos and read many accounts of dogs, dolphins, and other creatures that go to incredible lengths to help others.

Will Parrots Help With No Expectation Of A Return Assist?

In a recent study undertaken in conjunction with the Max Planck Institute for Ornithology by Dr. Désirée Brucks (Animal Physiology Group – Switzerland), and Dr. Auguste M.P. von Bayern (Behavioral Ecology Research Group – University of Oxford), the two scientists set out to determine whether parrots would help each other with no expectation of a return assist. Dr. von Bayern has made it her life’s work (to date) to understand the thinking minds of animals and their deliberate choices to help others, especially in pair-bonded sets.

African grey parrots
Help on the way: African grey Nikki and Jack exchange a token through a glass partition; the window for the parrot on the right is closed. Image by Anastasia Krasheninnikova)

For this groundbreaking study, the two observers chose two species of parrots that included six blue-headed macaws, and eight African grey parrots. Both species display amazing intelligence. Both have displayed “token transfers” tendencies in a controlled environment. This means that both parrots were willing to exchange something to gain a food reward. Previous to the study, it was unknown if avian species were willing to “think” and to evaluate the needs of another of its kind simply to help the other. With this study, it was discovered that the African grey parrot indeed was willing to help another without the reward of reciprocity. However, the blue-headed macaw parrot was not.

African grey
African grey parrots Nikki and Jack exchange tokens so one can redeem it for a nut treat. (Image by Anastasia Krasheninnikova)

Two Different Bird Species, Two Different Results

For the tests, the birds were specially housed in such a way that one parrot could receive a nut but had no exchange token (think of the exchange of cash for a product) with which to “pay” or to get the nut. The other of the pair had tokens but no way to exchange for the nut. The African grey without the token let its partner know that one was needed. The partner willingly provided one to the other to acquire the nut. Additionally, the one to get the nut willingly provided one to the other unable to get one. This kind of help was not evident with the blue-headed macaws. They simply ignored each other’s need in all instances.

Currently, the need is to understand why the blue-headed macaw displayed selfishness and a stubborn need to not assist its partner, and why the African grey was more than happy to help another of its kind even if they were not paired. It is a necessary evolution to understanding the nature of our co-inhabitants on the earth.

This study is far more detailed than is recounted here. The findings are published in Current Biology at Cell.com.

It’s magnificent to discover that many creatures have a kind side to them, even at their own loss.

4 thoughts on “A Test To See If Parrots Are Willing To Help Each Other

  1. I think that’s amazing behavior displayed by the two different types of parrots. I’m glad my bird is the unselfish one, CAGP, ha, ha.
    Great work guys and very interesting. Thanks for informing all of us bird lovers about bird behaviors, as well as, to those who read these findings and don’t have these wonderful creatures to share our lives with.

  2. Really happy to hear that the African greys are considerate of one another, what a beautiful spirited baby (the parrot who helped out his/her flock member) I’m almost more surprised that the macaws did not follow suit then to hear that the African Greys had that level of consciousness. Had variables been different perhaps the possible loss of a fellow flock member due to hunger how would that affect the macaws thinking patterns? ie) survival vs attachment. How about the personality traits of the specific birds in question or the species. Regardless I love greys I love macaws, I love my little flock at home, the sweet little parrot looking out for his buddy sure made me heart smile ♡♡

  3. I’d like more information and/or more experiments. For example, how long did the African greys know each other before the experiment? How long did the blue-headed macaws know each other before the experiment? How much interaction was there between parrots of the same species? Were they all complete strangers to each other? Could they see each other but not interact before the experiment?

Comments are closed.

Subscribe to our newsletter

Click here to subscribe to our newsletter