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The language of birds: 3. Bird to man communication

There are only two species of bird that use sound to convey to man the unique message: "follow me and I'll lead you to a bees' nest". The birds are called honeyguides in English and Indicator in Latin.

Listen
Pallid Honeyguide Indicator meliphilus
calls, recorded by David Fisher, 4 February 2000, Malindi, E Kenya.

The black-throated honeyguide Indicator indicator is the better-studied of the two and inhabits African tropical woodlands. The bird flies to a native village to solicit the help of a human. It makes a distinctive throbbing sound, not at all unlike the sound of a bees' nest; which may well be the clue to the evolutionary origin of the remarkable behaviour. Understanding the ploy, the person follows the bird, opens up the hive for it (the black-throated honeyguide is only 18cm long) and shares the spoils. The man takes the honey, while the bird - and again this is unique in the avian world - consumes and successfully metabolises the beeswax. For a long time it was thought that the honey badger Mellivora capensis was thus lured to bees' nests, but no single authentic instance of this happening has been reported. The habit is therefore likely to have arisen with early man as the bird's partner. Interestingly, and perhaps sadly, this charming example of mutual aid is declining in parts of Africa where humans no longer need wild honey.

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