Parrots: Not Just Smart, Also Selfless

A series of new experiments has demonstrated that in addition to cleverness, African grey parrots have social intelligence making them the ‘humans of the bird world’.

Study #1 overview

Researchers trained the parrots in a new study to exchange metal tokens for treats. The parrots were then placed into paired compartments with a little opening between them. Only one bird had tokens, but only the other bird could reach the treats. From the very first trial, the parrots with tokens gave them away, even though they got nothing in return.

“They were quite intrinsically motivated to help another.”

–Dr. Désirée Brucks, cognitive biologist, Max Planck Institute for Ornithology, Germany

The parrots are the first non-mammals observed helping each other in this way, suggesting other animals have evolved the ability to act selflessly.  Scientists call this kind of helpful behavior prosocial.

Study #2 overview

Another in the series of experiments focused on eight African grey parrots. Researchers found that parrot pairs with closer relationships before the experiment (for example, they spent more time preening or feeding each other) were more likely to help one another. Humans, too, prefer to help their friends.  But more surprising: the parrots also helped others they were not as close with.  When the researchers repeated the experiment with blue-headed macaws, another type of parrot, the birds only acted selfishly.


The researchers think different social systems in the wild may help explain the results. African greys live in huge, constantly shifting flocks. It might be important for the birds to immediately build good reputations, so that if they need help in the future — such as extra food, or help chasing off a predator — they’ll get it.



Journal Reference:  Brucks, D. & von Bayern, A.M.P. (2020). Parrots Voluntarily Help Each Other to Obtain Food Rewards, Current Biology Journal,