Wild birds ‘come when called’ to help hunt honey

hunter holding honeyguide birdImage copyright
Claire Spottiswoode

Image caption

Honeyguides flutter from tree to tree ahead of the hunters

New findings suggest that the famous cooperation between honeyguide birds and human honey hunters in sub-Saharan Africa is a two-way conversation.

Honeyguides fly ahead of hunters and point out beehives which the hunters raid, leaving wax for the birds to eat.

The birds were already known to chirp at potential human hunting partners.

Now, a study in the journal Science reports that they are also listening out for a specific call made by their human collaborators.

Experiments conducted in the savannah of Mozambique showed that a successful bird-assisted hunt was much more likely in the presence of a distinctive, trilling shout that the Yao hunters of this region learn from their fathers.

“They told us is that the reason they make this ‘brrrr-hm’ sound, when they’re walking through the bush looking for bees’ nests, is that it’s the best way of attracting a honeyguide – and of maintaining a honeyguide’s attention once it starts guiding you,” said Dr Claire Spottiswoode, a researcher at the University of Cambridge, UK, and the University of Cape Town, South Africa, who led the study.

She and her colleagues wanted to test what contribution this sound actually made.

Image copyright
Claire Spottiswoode

Image caption

The greater honeyguide’s proper Latin name is ‘Indicator indicator’

“In particular, we wanted to distinguish whether honeyguides responded to the specific information content of the ‘brrr-hm’ call – which, from a honeyguide’s point of view, effectively signals ‘I’m looking for bees’ nests’ – or whether the call simply alerts honeyguides to the presence of humans in the environment.”

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