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How birds that help humans find honey respond more readily to local calls, Cambridge researchers find





In a rare example of co-operation between humans and wild animals, tribespeople in Africa are able to encourage birds into helping them find honey sites using calls.

Now University of Cambridge scientists have found greater honeyguides - small, brown birds - respond more readily to the calls of locals than to foreign calls.

Yao honey-hunters Fatima Balasani and Seliano Rucunua calling for honeyguides in Niassa Special Reserve, Mozambique. Picture: Claire Spottiswoode
Yao honey-hunters Fatima Balasani and Seliano Rucunua calling for honeyguides in Niassa Special Reserve, Mozambique. Picture: Claire Spottiswoode

In return for revealing the location of honey stashes, the honeyguides are rewarded with the leftover beeswax.

Dr Claire Spottiswoode, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Cambridge and the University of Cape Town, said: “We found that honeyguides prefer the calls given by their local human partners, compared to foreign calls and arbitrary human sounds.

“This benefits both species, since it helps honey hunters attract a honeyguide to show them hard-to-find bees’ nests, and helps honeyguides to choose a good partner to help them to get at the wax.”

Male honeyguide in Niassa Special Reserve, Mozambique. Picture: Claire Spottiswoode
Male honeyguide in Niassa Special Reserve, Mozambique. Picture: Claire Spottiswoode

The researchers said that Hadza honey hunters in Tanzania communicate with the birds using a melodic whistle, whereas Yao honey hunters in Mozambique use a trill followed by a grunt.

Experiments have shown that honeyguides in Tanzania are more than three times more likely to help people giving the local Hadza whistle than those giving the foreign Yao trill and grunt.

Similarly, honeyguides in Mozambique are almost twice as likely to co-operate when they hear the local Yao trill and grunt as opposed to the Hadza whistle.

The scientists also found that those who use a completely different call are less likely to attract a bird to help them find honey.

The researchers said the exchange of calls between birds and humans are culturally determined, “signalling a desire to partner with the bird to find honey”.

Yao honey-hunter Carvalho Issa Nanguar harvests a bees' nest with smoke and an axe. Picture: Claire Spottiswoode
Yao honey-hunter Carvalho Issa Nanguar harvests a bees' nest with smoke and an axe. Picture: Claire Spottiswoode

Dr Brian Wood, an anthropologist at the University of California, Los Angeles, said: “Once these local cultural traditions are established, it pays for everyone – birds and humans – to conform to them, even if the sounds themselves are arbitrary.”

Dr Spottiswoode added: “What’s remarkable about the honeyguide-human relationship is that it involves free-living wild animals whose interactions with humans have evolved through natural selection, possibly over the course of hundreds of thousands of years.

7. Yao honey-hunters using fire and tools to harvest a bees' nest in Mozambique. Picture: Claire Spottiswoode
7. Yao honey-hunters using fire and tools to harvest a bees' nest in Mozambique. Picture: Claire Spottiswoode

She added: “This ancient, evolved behaviour has then been refined to local cultural traditions – the different human call sounds – through learning.”

The research was published in the journal Science.

Honey-harvest in the Niassa Special Reserve, Mozambique. Picture: Claire Spottiswoode
Honey-harvest in the Niassa Special Reserve, Mozambique. Picture: Claire Spottiswoode

“It’s such a privilege to witness co-operation between people and honeyguides – these are birds who specifically come to seek us out. The calls really sound like a conversation between the bird and the honey-hunters, as they move together towards a bees’ nest,” added Dr Spottiswoode.



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