Bird lies, deceives to steal food

2014-05-02 09:26

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Johannesburg - The African bird, the drongo, has proven itself something of a trickster in its ploy to steal food from species like meerkats, a UCT researcher said on Thursday.

"The drongo deceives other species, including meerkats, by mimicking their alarm calls in order to scare them away and steal their abandoned food", University of Cape Town researcher Tom Flower said in a statement.

"However, just as in Aesop's fable about the boy who cried wolf, the drongo can make too many false alarms and cause members of the exploited species to wise up, but when one false alarm call stops working, drongos mimic a different alarm call, keeping up the deception racket and their access to stolen food."

Since 2008, Flower, a researcher at UCT's Percy Fitzpatrick Institute of African Ornithology, walked 5 to 15km a day, six days a week for six months of each year, to observe the drongo's behaviour in the Kuruman River Reserve, which is part of the South African Kalahari desert and close to the Botswana border.

Since 1993, a long-term study on meerkats has been underway at the river reserve. Flower said meerkats had since become so used to humans in their environment, that they saw them as " little different from a tree".

"The project has been running for so long that the first thing a baby meerkat is likely to see when it emerges from its birth burrow, is a researcher waiting to watch its behaviour."

He said the study was one of the world's most important field research projects studying the evolution of co-operative societies.

"This kind of access to so many different animals is unrivalled anywhere in the world."

He said researchers were able to get close to their subjects in this environment.

"We can unravel the interactions between all these animals because different individuals are identifiable by coloured leg bands [in the case of the birds], or L'Oreal hair dye marks on the fur of the meerkats [don't worry, it's been tested on humans]."

Flower said he had trained the drongos to come to him with a call.

"So if I want to find drongo 'Dave', for example, I can walk into his territory, give a call and he'll come flying over to me in return for a mealworm reward. He'll rapidly get back to his natural behaviour, hawking flies or following meerkats and babblers to steal their food, allowing me to tag along and watch what happens."

Flower said other species were also being studied, including a bird called the pied babbler, who was also keen on stealing food from meerkats.

Flower's latest research is now following young drongos to see how they learn the mimicking behaviour.
Read more on:    botswana  |  birds  |  animals

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