Parrots are compassionate and helpful

African gray parrots help fellow species – even if they themselves do not benefit from this willingness to help. In an experiment, the birds unselfishly ensured that their cage neighbors got delicacies.

Such forms of empathy have so far only been observed in humans, apes and a few mammals, researchers at the Max Planck Institute for Ornithology in Seewiesen report in the journal “Current Biology”.

It has been known for a long time that parrots and crows have brains that are large in relation to their size and are accordingly clever. This goes hand in hand with a high level of social intelligence for crows – for example when they work together to get feed. However, previous studies have shown that crows do not help fellow species.

Birds with compassion and a sense of barter

Behavioral biologist Désirée Brucks (meanwhile at ETH Zurich) and the ornithologist Auguste of Bavaria now investigated the empathy ability of parrots in experiments with African gray parrots ( Psittacus erithacus ) and mountain macaws ( Primolius couloni ). Both types first learned to accept metal tags, which they could exchange for food through a gap. In order to check how helpful the birds are, the researchers placed two of their species in neighboring Plexiglas chambers, which were connected by a small opening.

Both chambers also had an opening to the outside , through which the birds got the metal stamps, and a gap through which they could exchange the stamps for delicacies. If a gray parrot was given metal stamps and the opening for exchanging the stamps for delicacies was closed in his chamber, he usually passed them on through the opening to the neighboring gray parrot, which then benefited from it. Mountain macaws did not show this willingness to help.

Prosocial parrots

“Remarkably, the gray parrots were basically motivated to help others. So they behaved very 'prosocially', ”von Bayern explains in a statement from the institute. “We were surprised that seven out of eight gray parrots spontaneously supplied their neighbors with the metal brands – and that in the first attempt, so that they did not know the social setting of the task beforehand and could not know that they would later test in a different role So the animals provided help without achieving any direct advantages and apparently without expecting anything in return.

In addition, the birds understood when their help made sense and when it did not: They did not hand over metal stamps if the gap in the neighboring chamber was closed to the outside – the neighboring parrot therefore had no way of exchanging the stamps for delicacies , Furthermore, the birds made no fundamental distinctions between strange and known neighbors. They only passed on more brands if they knew their peers.

Empathy not only applied to humans and great apes

Why mountain macaws did not act similarly according to the ornithologists. They suspect that different social structures of the species could play a role. In general, it should be investigated to what extent helpfulness is also widespread among others of the round 400 parrot species and what could have led to the development of this behavior. However, it is already clear that empathy not only occurs in humans and great apes, but also developed in birds.

“Our results show that parrots have the ability to behave in a helpful manner and are reciprocal” the authors write. “In fact, they indicate that the parrots are helpful, which opens up the possibility that they act pro-socially or even altruistically to signal their value as cooperation partners in the constant competition for coalition partners.” ( Alice Lanzke, dpa)

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