Playing Polly Politics

Why is it surprising to many people that animals that live in groups will co-operate when it comes to something as important as food? We are all familiar with the co-operative hunting practices of groups of predators, and of the highly organized co-operative lifestyle of insect species such as bees and ants. Surely if a species is hanging together for the common good, they are already co-operating in some aspects of their life.

If we put them into the laboratory and train them to do tricks to obtain food, then maybe we should expect them to have some facility to work together. Péron et al, U of Paris ONLD have published a study on three African Grey parrots (1,2) that showed that they could co-operate to get food treats. Two had to work together in pulling strings to gain their just rewards.

In the first experiment, two birds had to simultaneously pull strings to slide some treats on a tray out from under a set of bars. In a second experiment, one bird had to jump on a perch to release the tray pulled by the other. So far, so good. The birds had the experimenters well trained putting goodies on the tray so they could stuff themselves with treats. No surprises here. Chimps can do it, as can elephants and crows. Even humans are good at pulling strings to help each other.

This is where it gets interesting, though. Just like in our offices where personality comes into play, so it is with parrots. The bird that had got the job of jumping on the perch to release the tray couldn’t/wouldn’t re-train to become a mere puller of strings.

Even more fun in terms of parrot prison political personality propensity to work together was the final experiment where they could work on their own to get some food, or choose to work with a colleague to get twice as much for each.

Well Shango was a loner. Zoe had a long-standing affair with Leo and would only work with him. She would have nothing to do with Shango. Leo was the pragmatic one. He would work with anybody who would give him twice as much. Leo is obviously destined for high office.

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