Forget Bees: This Bird Has the Sweetest Deal With Honey-Seeking Humans

Yao honey-hunter Orlando Yassene holds a wild greater honeyguide male in the Niassa National Reserve, Mozambique. (Claire N. Spottiswoode)

Yao honey-hunter Orlando Yassene holds a wild greater honeyguide male in the Niassa National Reserve, Mozambique. (Claire N. Spottiswoode)

Brrrr-Hm!

Cutting through the crushing morning heat of the African bush, that sound is the trill of the Yao honey hunters of Mozambique. The call, passed down over generations of Yao, draws an unusual ally: the palm-sized Indicator indicator bird, also known as the greater honeyguide.

These feathery creatures do just what their name suggests: lead their human compatriots to the sweet stuff. Mobilized by the human voice, they tree-hop through the African bush, sporting brown, tan and white plumage that blends into the dry landscape.

This remarkable bird-human relationship has been around for hundreds—maybe even hundreds of thousands—of years. And yet until now, no one has investigated exactly how effective the call is. A new study, published today in the journal Science, demonstrates just how powerful this local call is in guaranteeing a successful expedition.

The honeyguide collaboration is a striking example of mutualism, or an evolutionary relationship that benefits both parties involved. In this case, birds rely on humans to subdue the bees and chop down the hive, while humans rely on birds to lead them to the nests, which are often tucked away in trees high up and out of sight.

“There's an exchange of information for skills,” says Claire Spottiswoode, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Cambridge and lead author of the study. Neither species could accomplish the task alone. Cooperation begets a worthwhile reward for both: The humans gain access to the honey, while the honeyguides get to chow down on the nutritious beeswax.

The partnership can be traced back to at least 1588, when the Portuguese missionary João dos Santos took note of a small bird soaring into his room to nibble on a candle, and described how this wax-loving avian led men to honey. “When the birds find a beehive they go to the roads in search of men and lead them to the hives, by flying on before them, flapping their wings actively as they go from branch to branch, and giving their harsh cries,” wrote dos Santos (translated from Italian).

But it wasn’t until the 1980s that scientists got in on the game. Ornithologist Hussein Isack first studied the behavior among the Boran people of Kenya, armed with only a watch and compass. Isack elegantly demonstrated that honeyguides provide honey-seeking humans with reliable directional information. But it still remained unclear whether the flow of information was one-sided. Could humans also signal their desire for sweets to their feathered friends?

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