Swiss animal behaviorist Désirée Brucks and German animal behaviorist Auguste von Bayern have been teaching African grey parrots to use money, and have found some surprising things about the birds. Quite a few different animals have been taught to earn an exchange medium and to trade those tokens for treats, and animals have long been observed to share food with each other. But the parrots have put those two things together, and are willing to share tokens so that their friends can buy treats.
After training eight African grey parrots and six blue-headed macaws to barter metal rings for walnuts, the researchers paired the birds up with same-species partners. They then put the parrots in clear chambers joined by a transfer hole, and gave one bird—the donor—ten rings, while the other was left with none.
Even without the promise of a reward for themselves, seven out of eight of the African grey parrot donors passed some of their available tokens through the transfer hole to their broke partners, usually shuttling them beak to beak. On average, about half the metal rings made it through, allowing the recipients to trade the trinkets for walnuts through another window.
“It was amazing to see,” Brucks says. “I thought that when they saw they weren’t gaining anything, they’d stop. But they just kept doing it … some transferred [all] ten of their tokens.”
To see how the birds understood their actions, the experiment was repeated without the walnuts being offered for sale. The transfer of tokens didn't stop, but it abated, showing that birds weren't just sharing the metal washers, but the opportunity to buy walnuts. The story was different with the trained macaws. Read more of what was learned from the experiment at Smithsonian.
(Image credit: Anastasia Krasheninnikova)