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A Parrot Experiment Surprises Researchers

African greys selflessly help other birds
By Arden Dier,  Newser Staff
Posted Jan 10, 2020 10:13 AM CST

(Newser) – Parrots help their friends, even when there's no chance of personal benefit, according to a study suggesting altruism is more common than thought in the animal kingdom. Indeed, African grey parrots were found to voluntarily help a neighbor get a food reward even as they went without. The behavior was witnessed among eight birds from the same social group, who’d been taught that metal tokens could be traded for food through an exchange window, per NPR. Researchers arranged two parrots at a time in transparent enclosures, connected via a small opening. One parrot had 10 tokens, but a closed exchange window. The other had an open window, but no tokens. Pretty quickly, the birds seemed to understand what needed to be done. When presented with tokens, seven of the eight parrots readily transferred them to their neighbor, per the Evening Standard.

The parrot watched "how their partner got the food for [the token], whereas they themselves did not get anything," says Désirée Brucks, a biologist at ETH Zürich. When they switched the birds in the enclosures, the same behavior played out. The study in Current Biology notes "comparable cases of proactive instrumental helping, using a similar setup, have only been reported in orangutans and bonobos." Another parrot species, blue-headed macaws, failed the same experiment. The token-laden macaws just tried to get the tokens as close as possible to the human experimenter with tasty walnuts, per NPR. Peggy Mason, a biologist who studies pro-social behavior but was not involved in the study, said it was "shocking" since the only benefit to the giving parrot "is that warm glow of helping." (Read more parrots stories.)

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