Why animal gift-giving is a survival instinct

animal gift-giving

No matter what language they speak, virtually all human cultures participate in some form of gift giving to express what they can’t say through words alone. And, in fact, humans aren’t the only ones who do this.

Animals don’t exactly speak to one another using words, as humans do, but they certainly do communicate. Whether it’s through profuse squeaking to tell a predator off or ruffling up some feathers to let a mate know it’s time to get it on, animals have ways to send all sorts of informative signals to their own kind, as well as to other species they come across. One of those signals is through the giving of gifts.

The Ultimate Getaway Gift for Two Love Birds

Bowerbirds have an eye for design and color, and other animal gift-giving techniques

Has your partner or spouse ever surprised you with a romantic vacation getaway? Possibly a cabin in the mountains or a resort on the beach? The Australian bowerbird uses a similar gift giving tactic to impress his female mate – in hopes of getting a little somethin’ somethin’ in return.

“Bowerbirds have an eye for design and color, and only the most vivid objects they can find are worthy of being presented to a female.”

Bowerbirds have an eye for design and color, and only the most vivid objects they can find are worthy of being presented to a female as a nuptual gift. At the start of the mating season, the male bowerbird will set out to build one of two distinct types of architectural bower structures (depending on their subspecies). The first is a cave-like arrangement of sticks around a sapling, and the other is two rows of sticks arranged vertically in a pathway-like manner.

Once the main structure is complete, the male bird starts decorating it with as many brightly colored things as he can find – natural, and even manmade. From flowers and fruits, to plastic bottle caps and Bic pens, the bird arranges them in piles of matching colors or randomly scatters them around the area.

Blue is the female bowerbird’s favorite color, so choosing – or not choosing – properly hued decorations can make or break the male’s chances of winning over a mate. If the female isn’t impressed by his sense of style and what he is able to create for her, she’ll move on to see what the next bower has to offer.

Welcoming Gifts from Extremely Unselfish Monkeys

animal gift-giving from extremely unselfish monkeys

Similar to the human custom of bringing housewarming gifts to newly moved-in neighbors, bonobos (previously known as pygmy chimpanzees) from Central Africa’s Democratic Republic of the Congo gladly give apples and bananas to their fellow bonobos, even those who belong to other groups. Unlike some other species that view other groups – even within their own species – as possible threats, bonobos gladly welcome other bonobos with gifts, mainly because they enjoy the social interaction.

A Duke University study proved this in a series of experiments where captive bonobos were offered a pile of food before coming into contact with a stranger, a member of their own group, or both. The bonobos voluntarily shared food with strangers; they were happy to give up their own food, as long they gained the social benefit of being able to interact with the new kids.

Even more interestingly, the researchers found that bonobos will give food away to strangers – or help them get food that’s out of reach – even when they don’t expect social interaction. This is proof that humans aren’t the only ones who have evolved to exhibit this type of voluntary behavior that’s intended to benefit others. Rather, it’s possible that the common ancestors of humans, including the chimps and bonobos, already had this unselfish motivational trait.

Dead Critters from Your Favorite Feline

Your animal gift-giving is not just giving you her kill out of sheer generosity, or because she can. She’s actually trying to teach you a valuable lesson.

If you’ve ever been the owner of an outdoor cat, then you can probably attest to being surprised by a few “presents” that your furry friend has dragged inside or left at your door. In reality, she’s not just giving you her kill out of sheer generosity, or because she can. She’s actually trying to teach you a valuable lesson.

Cats are born hunters, and mothers instinctively teach their kittens how to hunt for their food by demonstrating it to them. The kittens are able to observe their mother’s behavior so they can perfect their instinctive hunting skills. That’s fine for the kittens, but maybe not so much for human owners.

While there is some scientific evidence showing that dogs can at least distinguish humans from other dogs, it’s not exactly clear whether cats know that humans aren’t cats, too. That’s why any time your cat brings you her kill, what she’s actually doing is treating you like family, and she believes that you need a lesson or two in hunting for food.

Giving Gifts to Stay Alive

An animal gift-giving dogeHere, take this.

We tend to think of animals as simple creatures, and while some studies suggest that animals have personalities, experience emotions, and think thoughts somewhat as humans do, it’s pretty obvious that gift giving trends across various animal species serve one main purpose, and that is survival. Whether it’s reproduction, making new friends, or hunting for food, the act of giving gifts has everything to do with making sure the species continues to make it.

When you think about it, the human tradition of gift giving is really all about survival, too. We give gifts to celebrate life, honor each other, and look forward to a bright future together.