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.

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