Watoga Trail Report

Male greater honeyguide bird, Indicator indicator.
Honeyguide chick with a formidable weapon to kill step-siblings, twin daggers on its bill.

Ken Springer
Watoga Park Foundation

The feathered dichotomy
The two natures
of the honeyguide bird

Most living things are beautifully adapted to their environment. Occasionally, one notable species will stand out in the natural world as truly unique. This is the story of Indicator indicator, otherwise known as the greater honeyguide bird.

If you have seen any videos about the honeyguide bird, they probably went something like this:

“A bushman makes his way through a dry forest of Sub-Saharan Africa. Cupping his hand around his mouth, he releases a shrill chattering call and scans the trees ahead.

“Soon, a handsome starling-sized bird answers his call, prompting the bushman to follow the bird. The bird leads the bushman to a tree with the familiar buzz of bees coming from a cavity in the trunk some 20 feet off the ground.

“The honeyguide perches on the branch of a nearby tree and watches as the bushman starts a small fire. A little later, the man climbs the tree and sedates the bees with a smoking faggot of wood. He drops the honeycombs to the ground and, after descending, gathers up the combs containing the honey.

“But before he returns to his village with the plundered treat, the bushman leaves a section of honeycomb on the ground in plain sight. The honeyguide swoops down to feast on the bee larvae and wax. The honey is just an added bonus.”

You are not watching a Disney cartoon or a Hallmark movie; this is for real. You have just witnessed what may be the rarest oddity of nature, a mutual relationship between a human and a wild animal.

There are very few examples of humans maintaining a symbiotic relationship with other life forms. We do have a give and take situation with our gut bacteria. Still, it is exceedingly unusual to have such a relationship with a non-domesticated animal.
One astounding example of human/animal mutualism may be found in Brazil. Here, dolphins allegedly signal fishermen by a slap of the tail that they are about to herd fish towards shore. The fishermen are waiting with casting nets.

The dolphin benefit from the easier pickings of having the fish corralled and the humans reap a glut of fish.

If true, the relationship is a win-win arrangement for both humans and dolphins. As of yet, inadequate research has been conducted to verify that this is a true case of mutualism.

There are a couple of species of honeyguide birds that lead humans to beehives. The Indicator indicator is the most common species in Sub-Saharan Africa.

Most of the African tribes that benefit from the honeyguide are subsistence farmers or foragers. These indigenous tribes have been the subject of intense research on mutualism over the last couple of decades. The results are fascinating.

For the Yao people of Mozambique, researchers have concluded that using one specific call is effective in locating the honeyguide bird 66 percent percent of the time. This fact was arrived at when human hive-hunters, acting as experimental controls, used nonsensical calls.*

The random vocalizations were far less successful in getting the attention of the bird. Apparently, the honeyguide recognizes and understands the human call.

As well, by using the honeyguide bird to find a bee’s nest, 75 percent of the searches were successful compared to only a 25 percent success rate when the humans searched without help from the bird. A huge difference!

Several new facts came to light during recent research on the Boran people of Kenya who claim that the behavior of the bird provides enough information to locate the beehive.

The human honey hunters can find the hive by simply observing the honeyguide bird’s flight patterns and calls.

This indicates that the bird’s calls and flight characteristics have a specific meaning that humans have learned to understand. These abilities may be unprecedented in human and wild animal communication.

I am sad to report that among the indigenous groups studied, there appears to be a Grinch in the mix. The Hazda people of Tanzania find that “holding back” honey from their honeyguides keeps them from getting complacent.

You read it right; after the Indicator indicator leads a human to a hive, the human will often bury or burn the leftover wax and bee larvae to deprive the bird of its share of the loot. Sort of a cruel “keep ‘em on their toes” strategy.

Clearly, in the case of the honeyguide bird and the humans living in southeastern Africa, an effective form of cooperation and vocal communication has co-evolved.

“How long has this been going on?” you ask.

Rock art in these African regions dating back 20,000 years, depicts this method of obtaining honey through human and bird cooperation. This relationship probably dates back to early Homo sapiens (200,000 years) and possibly even farther back to Homo erectus.

A symbiosis that is this complex does not develop overnight.

The skills required on the human’s part are likely learned and passed down from generation to generation. Whereas, the bird’s behavior must be genetically programmed. One factor confirms this assertion – the mother honeyguide bird does not rear her own chicks.

So, before you get all gushy about this cozy relationship between man and bird, we need to take a more comprehensive look at the honeyguide bird. This is a bird often described as a feathered Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.

The horror show commences when the mother honeyguide lays her single white egg in another bird species’ nest. But she doesn’t stop there, oh no. Before she abandons her egg, she ensures her future chick’s success by fatally puncturing some of the other eggs, particularly those that are developed and may hatch before her own egg.

The female honeyguide leaves some undamaged eggs to hatch, but not because she has a sudden change of heart, pardon the anthropomorphism. She does this so that the real owner of the nest will not abandon it, effectively leaving the honeyguide egg, as well.

Not to worry though, her chick will eliminate its nest mates just as soon as they hatch. When her chick finally breaks out of its shell, it comes equipped with a temporarily spiked beak.

The chick only needs this nightmarish weapon for a single task – to kill all of its nest mates. Suitably armed, the chick does this forthwith and without mercy. Now, all of the adoptive mother’s food offerings go straight into the gullet of the honeyguide chick with no competition.

Honeyguide birds are not the only bird species to engage in brood parasitism. This is a reproductive strategy for several bird species, but that of the honeyguide bird seems incredibly harsh to us humans.

This monster emerging out of its shell smacks a bit of the creature from the movie Alien. In a future Watoga Trail Report we will look at some insect and fungal parasites that are every bit as bizarre and disturbing as the alien creature.

Blood and gore aside, the relationship between the honeyguide bird and humans may be a one-off on this planet. As such, it is a truly marvelous example that from our species and a wild animal can evolve a mutual behavior that benefits both.

But things don’t look good for the future of this epic relationship.

Many negative things can be said about sugar. Not the least of which is that sugar-fueled the evils of slavery.

Sugar rots teeth, causes depression and anxiety in children, increases the likelihood of getting type 2 diabetes, weight gain, inflam- mation and fatty liver disease.

And now, the availability of sugar may sever the age-old tie between humans and the greater honeyguide bird. In many of the honey-hunting tribes, sugar is replacing honey as the preferred source of a sweetening substance. It is much easier to obtain, and the hunter’s life is not put at risk ascending trees.

I can understand the convenience of sugar to the tribes. But if the symbiotic relationship is disrupted or curtailed, it will be a tragedy for the honeyguide bird and mankind.

If the human involvement with the honeyguide disappears, we will be losing something extraordinary. Perhaps we should think long and hard before further alienation from the natural world from whence we came.

Author’s Note: There are many claims that the honeyguide bird maintains a mutualistic relationship with honey badgers; there is absolutely no evidence of this to date.

Here’s wishing you all a Merry Christmas,
Ken Springer

*University of Cambridge, U.K.,  Audubon, and BBC
The Salt, How wild birds team up with humans. Nell Greenfield Boyce July 2016

more recommended stories