Friday, December 9, 2016

Talking to the honeyguides

Instances of “mutualism” – collaboration
between humans and wild animals – are
rare. But one famous example is that of the
greater honeyguide, a bird native to
sub-Saharan Africa, which leads humans
to bees’ nests. The humans open the nest
(not something the bird could safely do),
and take the honey, leaving the wax for the
honeyguide to eat. In most areas, the bird
finds the nest, uses a unique call to attract
human helpers and then guides its helpers
to the nest, by flitting from tree to tree,
there to await its reward. However, a
Cambridge University team has discovered
that among the Yao people in the Niassa
National Reserve in Mozambique, the
system works in reverse. Yao hunters leave
their village to seek honey – and summon
their avian friends to help them, using a
“brrrrr-hm” call passed down through the
generations. To check that the birds were
reacting to the hunting call, and not just
being alerted to the presence of humans,
biologist Dr Claire Spottiswoode asked the
hunters to play a range of calls, and
monitored their effectiveness. She found
that when they used the honey-hunt call, it
doubled the hunters’ chances of being
guided by a bird, and more than tripled the
chances of finding a nest. In other words, it
seems the birds understand the call to be a
request for help, and respond accordingly.

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