CLOSE
Claire N. Spottiswoode
Claire N. Spottiswoode

In Mozambique, People and Wild Birds Share a Sweet Business Arrangement

Claire N. Spottiswoode
Claire N. Spottiswoode
Header image: Yao honey-hunter Orlando Yassene holds a wild greater honeyguide female (temporarily captured for research) in the Niassa National Reserve, Mozambique.

Prepare to feel inadequate about your relationship to wildlife: Honey hunters in Mozambique use special calls to enlist wild birds, who lead the people to beehives in exchange for leftovers. A report on this extraordinary relationship was published in the journal Science. 

Male (L) and female (R) honeyguides.

The appropriately named Indicator indicator, commonly known as the honeyguide, is a shrewd player from the moment it’s born. Female honeyguides lay their eggs in the nests of kingfishers, starlings, swallows, and other birds. Newly hatched honeyguide chicks then use their sharp, hooked beaks to kill any other chicks or eggs in the nest, ensuring that they will be the only beneficiaries of their hoodwinked foster parents’ attention. 

Adult honeyguides are far less mercenary but no less savvy. For thousands of years, the birds have maintained an impressive and mutually beneficial business relationship with humans. The birds are good at finding beehives, but can’t crack them open, whereas people can get inside hives but need help locating them. Since the humans are after honey and the birds want the wax honeycomb, there’s no competition for the spoils. It’s a pretty sweet deal all around.

Part of a honey harvest.

Claire Spottiswoode is an evolutionary biologist at the University of Cambridge and the University of Cape Town, and she’s been fascinated with the honeyguide-honey hunter symbiosis since childhood. When conservation biologists Colleen and Keith Begg of the Niassa Carnivore Project told her that some honey hunters had developed specialized calls to summon the birds, Spottiswoode knew she had to learn more. “This was instantly intriguing,” she said in a press statement. “Could these calls really be a mode of communication between humans and a wild animal?” 

To find out, Spottiswoode and the Beggs recruited 20 experienced honey hunters in Mozambique’s Niassa National Reserve. The hunters, all men of the Yao tribe, said they had learned the bird calls from their fathers. The researchers recorded the men’s honeyguide-summoning calls—the same “brrrr-mm” noise for all 20—as well as some unrelated sounds, like the men speaking their names and making other animal sounds. 

The scientists then followed the honey hunters into honeyguide territory, playing their recorded noises and watching to see if the birds would turn up. 

Sure enough, the birds responded eagerly to the summoning calls, showing up and leading the people to hives three times more often than they did for the nonsense sounds. The “brrrr-mm” call worked like a factory whistle, telling the honeyguides it was time to get to work. 

Elsewhere in Africa, Spottiswoode says, other groups of people have developed other types of honeyguide summoning calls. “We'd love to know whether honeyguides have learnt this language-like variation in human signals across Africa,” she said, “allowing them to recognise good collaborators among the local people living alongside them." 

Like so many of our planet’s wonders, this remarkable relationship is in jeopardy, and has already disappeared from some parts of the continent—a fact that makes the Niassa National Reserve even more important and precious. “The world is a richer place for wildernesses like Niassa,” Spottiswoode says, “where this astonishing example of human-animal cooperation still thrives."

All images courtesy of Claire N. Spottiswoode.

Know of something you think we should cover? Email us at tips@mentalfloss.com.

nextArticle.image_alt|e
iStock
arrow
Animals
Pigeons Are Secretly Brilliant Birds That Understand Space and Time, Study Finds
iStock
iStock

Of all the birds in the world, the pigeon draws the most ire. Despite their reputation as brainless “rats with wings,” though, they’re actually pretty brilliant (and beautiful) animals. A new study adds more evidence that the family of birds known as pigeons are some of the smartest birds around, as Quartz alerts us.

In addition to being able to distinguish English vocabulary from nonsense words, spot cancer, and tell a Monet from a Picasso, pigeons can understand abstract concepts like space and time, according to the new study published in Current Biology. Their brains just do it in a slightly different way than humans’ do.

Researchers at the University of Iowa set up an experiment where they showed pigeons a computer screen featuring a static horizontal line. The birds were supposed to evaluate the length of the line (either 6 centimeters or 24 centimeters) or the amount of time they saw it (either 2 or 8 seconds). The birds perceived "the longer lines to have longer duration, and lines longer in duration to also be longer in length," according to a press release. This suggests that the concepts are processed in the same region of the brain—as they are in the brains of humans and other primates.

But that abstract thinking doesn’t occur in the same way in bird brains as it does in ours. In humans, perceiving space and time is linked to a region of the brain called the parietal cortex, which the pigeon brains lack entirely. So their brains have to have some other way of processing the concepts.

The study didn’t determine how, exactly, pigeons achieve this cognitive feat, but it’s clear that some other aspect of the central nervous system must be controlling it. That also opens up the possibility that other non-mammal animals can perceive space and time, too, expanding how we think of other animals’ cognitive capabilities.

[h/t Quartz]

nextArticle.image_alt|e
iStock
arrow
Animals
The Queen's Racing Pigeons Are in Danger, Due to an Increase in Peregrine Falcons
iStock
iStock

Queen Elizabeth is famous for her love of corgis and horses, but her pet pigeons don't get as much press. The monarch owns nearly 200 racing pigeons, which she houses in a luxury loft at her country estate, Sandringham House, in Norfolk, England. But thanks to a recent boom in the region’s peregrine falcon population, the Queen’s swift birds may no longer be able to safely soar around the countryside, according to The Telegraph.

Once endangered, recent conservation efforts have boosted the peregrine falcon’s numbers. In certain parts of England, like Norfolk and the city of Salisbury in Wiltshire, the creatures can even find shelter inside boxes installed at local churches and cathedrals, which are designed to protect potential eggs.

There’s just one problem: Peregrine falcons are birds of prey, and local pigeon racers claim these nesting nooks are located along racing routes. Due to this unfortunate coincidence, some pigeons are failing to return to their owners.

Pigeon racing enthusiasts are upset, but Richard Salt of Salisbury Cathedral says it's simply a case of nature taking its course. "It's all just part of the natural process,” Salt told The Telegraph. "The peregrines came here on their own account—we didn't put a sign out saying 'room for peregrines to let.' Obviously we feel quite sorry for the pigeons, but the peregrines would be there anyway."

In the meantime, the Queen might want to keep a close eye on her birds (or hire someone who will), or consider taking advantage of Sandringham House's vast open spaces for a little indoor fly-time.

[h/t The Telegraph]

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER
More from mental floss studios