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Some parrots are super smart, but are they helpful? NPR's Nell Greenfieldboyce reports on a surprising new study.
NELL GREENFIELDBOYCE, BYLINE: Imagine that you are an African grey parrot. You're sitting in a cage with a bunch of small metal tokens. You know that these tokens can be traded through a window for a tasty walnut. But the trading window in your cage is closed, shut tight. Meanwhile, there's another parrot in the cage next door. You can see that its trading window is wide open. But this bird has no tokens.
DESIREE BRUCKS: One has the tokens but cannot do anything with them, whereas the other one needs the tokens in order to get food.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: Desiree Brucks is a researcher in Switzerland who did this study. She found that the parrots would spontaneously help out their neighbor by going to an opening between the two cages and selflessly handing a token over - well, beaking (ph) it over.
BRUCKS: Many of them transferred all 10 tokens, one after the other, always watching how their partner got the food for it.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: This study in the journal Current Biology shocked Peggy Mason. She's a researcher at the University of Chicago who studies helping behavior in rats. She says the generous parrots got no food, only the warm glow of giving.
PEGGY MASON: That's amazing.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: Still, in other lab tests of sharing, this species hasn't been so super generous. Irene Pepperberg studies African greys at Harvard. She says it's hard to design experiments to truly show what's going on in these animals' brains.
IRENE PEPPERBERG: I mean, we are really interested in this topic, and it's an important topic.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: Because humans aren't the only ones who know it's better to give than to receive. And scientists want to understand how this evolved.
Nell Greenfieldboyce, NPR News.
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