A male greater honeyguide in Niassa National Reserve in Mozambique. (Claire N. Spottiswoode)
For centuries, humans have trained domesticated animals to assist them with hunting and working around the farm, but a group of wild birds that partner with humans for common gain is something rare.
According to an article on washingtonpost.com, just such an arrangement exists in sub-Saharan Africa. Tiny, orange-beaked wild birds, known as greater honeyguides, do just exactly that, guide humans to treasure troves of wild honey in the area.
Humans have a difficult time locating the beehives by themselves, and the birds, given the appropriate scientific name of Indicator indicator, can find the hives, but can’t get to the reward without being stung to death by the bees. The birds don’t actually eat the honey, but rather the beeswax and larvae in the hive.
That’s where the partnership comes together. The birds, as they sense human activity, chatter and hop about to gain the attention of the humans, and signal them they are ready to lead them to a hive. The people follow the bird to the hive, as the honeyguide stays in contact by displaying its white tail feathers, where the people smoke out the bees, harvest the honey, and share the leftover wax and larvae with the birds.
But, in the Niassa National Reserve of northern Mozambique, members of the Yao tribe have developed a form of communication with the birds. According to Claire Spottiswoode, a zoologist at the University of Cambridge and the University of Cape Town, the Yao honey hunters make a certain sound that attracts the honeyguides, and apparently the wild birds recognize the sound as a call to action.
She tested the theory in the Niassa forests and found the use of the sound, passed along to younger tribe members by the older ones, more than tripled the hunters’ chance of finding a bees’ nest during a 15-minute stretch. The sound resulted in locating a nest in 80 percent of the tests, a far greater percentage than any other sound.
In an interview, Spottiswoode said, “The crucial point is that honeyguides love wax, whereas humans love honey. So there’s no conflict of interest over the reward.”
Findings from the research were published in the journal Science.