African grey parrots ‘lend a wing’ to their friends

By Nina Massey, PA Science Correspondent

Polly might want a cracker, but she may also help her friends get one, new research suggests.

Researchers say that for the first time they have shown that birds – specifically African grey parrots – are willing to help others, including strangers, in need.

They enlisted African grey parrots and blue-headed macaws, finding that both species were eager to trade tokens with an experimenter for a nut treat.

However, the study, published in the Current Biology journal, found that only the African greys were willing to transfer a token to a neighbour, allowing the other parrot to earn a nut reward.

Seven out of eight of the birds spontaneously provided their partners with tokens without having experienced the social setting of the task before, and without knowing that they would be tested in the other role later on.

Co-author Desiree Brucks, of the Max Planck Institute for Ornithology in Germany, said: “We found that African grey parrots voluntarily and spontaneously help familiar parrots to achieve a goal, without obvious immediate benefit to themselves.”

Study co-author Auguste von Bayern said: “Remarkably, African grey parrots were intrinsically motivated to help others, even if the other individual was not their friend, so they behaved very ‘pro-socially’.”

She added that the findings were surprising as the parrots provided help without gaining any immediate benefits and seemingly without expecting any reciprocation.

African grey parrots exchanging tokens (Anastasia Krasheninnikova/PA)

Importantly, she notes, the African grey parrots appeared to understand when their help was needed.

Researchers observed that when they could see the other parrot had an opportunity for exchange, they would pass a token over, otherwise they would not.

The parrots would help out whether the other individual was their “friend” or not, Dr von Bayern said.

However, when the parrot in need of help was a “friend”, the helper transferred even more tokens.

The researchers suggest the difference between African greys and blue-headed macaws may relate to differences in their social organisation in the wild.

They say further studies are required to investigate the underlying mechanisms of the parrots’ helping behaviour.