Avian Expert Articles

Inside Pepperberg’s Lab: Do Parrots Engage In Cooperative Behavior?

Dr Pepperberg and African grey parrot
Which cup will the African grey choose?

In an earlier post, I wrote about how parrots like to think that everything is theirs — or that everything should be theirs. We have found, however, that African grey parrots will act cooperatively and share under some circumstances — or at least they will do so when they realize it is to their best advantage.

A few years ago, colleagues and I set up an experiment to test whether grey parrots Griffin and Arthur would cooperate in order to maximize their rewards (Péron et al., 2013). A trial consisted of each bird acting in turn; in each turn they were given four cups from which to choose, with each cup indicating a different reward contingency and numbers of nuts. The resulting reward would be given out by the human experimenter.

The Sharing Game

If the first bird to choose picked the green cup, he found two nuts, but one nut went to the other bird. If he picked the orange cup, he found one nut, and the other bird got the nut. If he picked the pink cup, he again found one nut, but he got the nut. If he picked the purple cup, which was empty, no one got anything. The second bird then got a chance to choose from a replenished set of cups. On different days, different birds got to go first.

The parrots could potentially maximize their overall number of nuts by reciprocating in sharing — that is, get a nut on each trial if they each picked green. Only Griffin, the dominant bird, was willing to do so — to share — and then only reliably when he was a follower. Arthur, the subordinate, always took the opportunity to take whatever he could for himself! In a second experiment, each bird alternated with three humans with different specific intentions (selfish, giving, or copying the bird’s behavior). Here, the birds’ responses tended towards consistency with the human behavior. Griffin was willing to share a reward with a human who was willing to give up her reward, was selfish with the selfish human, and tended toward sharing with the copycat human; note that he did not exactly copy the human who gave up her reward! Arthur tended slightly toward increased sharing with the generous human and selfishness with the selfish human, but did not change his behavior to affect that of the copycat. So it appeared that Griffin, at least, had some idea that by sharing he could get the highest number of rewards.

Although Griffin seemed to get the idea, he wasn’t absolutely consistent in his behavior, and we realized that he might have thought that the humans were acting erratically because all the different types of trials with his trainers were intermixed. We thought he might do better if we just gave him the copycat trials alone (Péron et al., 2014). That indeed was the case! This time, he fairly quickly figured out that by choosing green, he could get the most rewards. Of course, his behavior wasn’t exactly totally altruistic, but did show that a parrot could learn to share when his partner would reciprocate and if the overall outcome would be favorable.

Athena Asks For A Helping Hand

More recently, we saw evidence of a somewhat different, but related, type of behavior — one of our parrots possibly asking a student for help! The background for the incident was as follows. Every evening, about 15 minutes before bedtime, our birds are given a favorite treat — a whole almond in the shell (what Alex and now Griffin call “cork nut”) — as a reward for going back into their cages so that the students can put them away for the night. As I’ve written previously, they are about as eager to go to “bed” as is a human toddler, so this is one way we encourage their cooperation. Usually, they eat the nut immediately; sometimes they leave a bit for breakfast; they never ignore it completely.

One morning, however, a student came in to find that Athena had seemingly not touched her nut at all. When the student opened the cage, Athena came out with the nut in her beak — definitely an odd occurrence. Athena transferred the nut to her foot, and then held it out to the student. Even odder! Intrigued, the student held out her hand, into which Athena promptly dropped the nut. Upon inspection, the student saw that this was a particularly smooth almond, with no edge that would provide a starting point for cracking. When the student cracked the nut and returned it, Athena quickly ate it — so there was nothing wrong with the innards. Now, whether Athena was actually asking for help or simply making her displeasure known is unclear, but she certainly knew that the human was somehow responsible for fixing the problem.

It may simply be a matter of our parrots learning how to manipulate their human trainers in order to get what they want, but these findings suggest that Grey parrots certainly can at least do that, even if it means giving up something in the process!

Péron, F., Johns, M., Sapowicz, S., Bovet, D., & Pepperberg, I.M. (2013). A study of reciprocity in Grey
parrots (Psittacus erithacus) Animal Cognition, 16:197-210.
Péron, F., Thornburg, L., Gross, B., Gray, S., & Pepperberg, I.M. (2014) Further studies on Grey parrot
reciprocity. Animal Cognition, 17: 937-944.
Subscribe to our newsletter