Science analyses rare rapport between birds, people

2016-07-21 22:59


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Miami - For generations, people in Africa have partnered with wild birds called honeyguides to find bee hives and honey, and scientists said on Thursday they have analysed this rare rapport for the first time.

The bond has benefits for both - the humans subdue the bees with smoke and harvest the honey, while the birds eat the wax from the hive.

But just how this communication works took on a new dimension when scientists found that certain calls used by hunters from the local Yao community in Mozambique were far more likely to encourage birds to lead them to honey.

The birds themselves use certain calls to find humans, and when humans respond with a call that sounds like a loud trill followed by a short grunt, "brrr-hm", the birds were far more likely to lead them to honey than if the people responded with a simple word or another kind of bird's call.

"The traditional 'brrr-hm' call increased the probability of being guided by a honeyguide from 33% to 66%," said researcher Claire Spottiswoode of the University of Cambridge and the University of Cape Town.

"And the overall probability of being shown a bees' nest from 16% to 54% compared to the control sounds."

Honeyguides are found across sub-Saharan Africa, and depending on the area, people use different calls to recruit them.

The small brown birds also exploit other birds for their own gain. For instance, honeyguides lay their eggs in cuckoo nests. Within days of hatching, their young use sharp hooks on the end of their beaks to kill baby cuckoos so they can have the nest to themselves.

"The greater honeyguide is a master of deception and exploitation as well as cooperation - a proper Jekyll and Hyde of the bird world," said Spottiswoode.

"What's remarkable about the honeyguide-human relationship is that it involves free-living wild animals whose interactions with humans have probably evolved through natural selection, probably over the course of hundreds of thousands of years."

This partnership was first written down in 1588, when a Portuguese missionary, Joao dos Santos, saw a petite bird making its way into his church - in what is now Mozambique - to nibble on candles.

He also described how the bird led men to bee hives by calling and flying from tree to tree. Once the people harvested the honey, the bird fed on the wax.

Read more on:    mozambique  |  us  |  insects  |  birds

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