Parrots, those brightly plumed avian creatures, have long been admired for their beauty and mimicry skills. However, recent research has revealed an unexpected dimension to their intelligence—generosity and the ability to comprehend currency exchange. Scientists at ETH Zürich in Switzerland and the Max Planck Institute for Ornithology in Germany conducted a series of experiments that shed light on the altruistic behaviours and cognitive abilities of African grey parrots (Psittacus erithacus), demonstrating their willingness to share prized possessions and their understanding of currency transactions.
In a groundbreaking study published in the journal Current Biology, researchers explored whether parrots, specifically African grey parrots, and blue-headed macaws, could engage in helpful behaviours by sharing currency tokens for mutual benefits. The experiment involved training the birds to exchange metal rings for walnuts, a highly valued treat not typically included in their diets. The findings of the study have challenged previously held assumptions about the limitations of non-primate species’ capacity for complex social behaviours.
Intriguingly, African grey parrots showcased their capacity for sophisticated reasoning. Even when given no promise of personal reward, seven out of eight African grey parrots voluntarily shared their metal rings with partner birds through a transfer hole, enabling their peers to exchange the tokens for walnuts. This selfless behaviour demonstrated a level of understanding beyond simple stimulus-response conditioning. These parrots were not just transferring tokens but also comprehending the consequences of their actions on others.
According to the Smithsonian Magazine Désirée Brucks, an animal behaviourist at ETH Zürich, expressed her astonishment at the results, noting that the parrots continued to share their tokens even when there was no immediate gain for themselves. The blue-headed macaws, on the other hand, displayed a lower inclination to share, holding onto around 90% of their metal rings. Unlike the African grey parrots, when the macaws did transfer tokens, it was a more passive action of dropping them onto the recipient’s enclosure floor.
The study also investigated reciprocity. When roles were reversed, with receivers having the opportunity to repay their donors, it was observed that the parrots took note and adjusted their token-sharing behaviour accordingly. This adaptability demonstrated a level of cognitive flexibility, indicating a deeper understanding of the dynamics at play. Notably, the strength of social bonds played a significant role in the parrots’ token-sharing behaviour.
The stronger the bond between donor and recipient, the more tokens were passed between them. This finding suggests that these parrots can recognize relationships and act based on emotional connections. However, the researchers acknowledged that the study’s results are not universally applicable to all parrot species or wild populations. The experiment raised questions about the ecological relevance of such behaviours, especially in natural environments where walnuts and token exchange mechanisms do not exist.
While the altruistic tendencies of some animal species have been documented before, this research is groundbreaking due to the additional layer of cognitive complexity displayed by African grey parrots. The birds’ ability to grasp the concept of currency exchange and its effects on other individuals has impressed experts like Christina Riehl, a bird behaviour expert at Princeton University. Riehl pointed out that this behaviour had previously been thought to be exclusive to primates.
Irene Pepperberg, an animal cognition expert from Harvard University who studies African grey parrots, stressed the significance of understanding how different species respond to the needs of their peers. She noted that the findings align with her own research, which has repeatedly shown that African grey parrots are willing to share and have innovative ways of doing so. In the wild, these parrots live in large, loosely structured groups, where developing a reputation for generosity could provide individual birds with advantages in survival and resource sharing.
Despite these compelling findings, it’s important to acknowledge the limitations of the study. The experiments didn’t account for more complex scenarios, such as when the donor birds’ own access to walnuts was open. This raises the possibility that the parrots might have been less willing to part with their tokens if their own rewards were at stake.
Intriguingly, not all highly intelligent birds exhibit the same behaviours. Ravens, another notably intelligent bird species, did not display the same sharing tendencies in a similar experiment. This disparity highlights the diversity of behaviours that can emerge even among cognitively advanced avian species.
The research conducted by ETH Zürich and the Max Planck Institute for Ornithology has unveiled the remarkable social and cognitive abilities of African grey parrots. Their capacity for altruistic behaviours and their understanding of currency exchange mechanisms challenge traditional notions of avian intelligence and hint at the rich complexity of animal behaviours. While many questions remain, this study adds an exciting layer to our understanding of the intricate social lives and cognitive prowess of our feathered friends.