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article imageThis bird does something extraordinary, and it will surprise you

By Megan Hamilton     Oct 20, 2015 in Environment
The greater honeyguide has a name that's slightly misleading, but that's only because it doesn't eat honey. Instead, it prefers the larvae and eggs in a bee hive, and strangely, it is one of the few animals in the world that can live on wax.
That's a remarkable adaptation, except for one thing. The bird can't crack open the trees and stumps where the bees nest, and it also couldn't withstand the ensuing swarm of upset bees, Gizmodo reports.
So what's a bird to do?
If you're a greater honeyguide (Indicator indicator), you call on someone that you know can crack open the nest and pacify the inhabitants. That someone actually turns out to be several someones — the Borana people of Kenya. They know the distinctive calls made by the birds and often spot the birds — often females and younger males — hopping around. Then they follow the bird as it flies from one branch to another, until it leads them to the hive. The Borana sedate the bees with smoke and break open the hive. Once the people have gathered enough honey, they toss aside some honeycomb as a reward for their avian cohort.
The story doesn't end there, however.
The Borana people also know how to summon the honeyguide.
When hunters go out searching for honey, they use a special whistle. In the Borana language it's called a "Fuu-lido," and this whistle can be heard for a very long way, The Call of The Honeyguide reports. When a honeyguide answers the whistle it alerts the hunters by issuing a persistent "tirr-tirr-tirr-tirr call that it uses solely for attracting the attention of the hunters. As it does this it flits from branch to branch and then disappears briefly. Once it comes back it perches where it can be found easily. It's thought that reason the greater honeyguide pulls the disappearing act is because the bird has flown off to check the location of the nearest hive, and the Boran people are able to estimate the distance to the hive by the amount of time it takes for the bird to return.
Once the bird makes its way back, it once again starts calling and then flits from one branch to another, leading the hunters to the prize.
Honeyguides are definitely intelligent, and it's believed that a bird can remember the location of all the hives within its territory, and that they actually lead the hunters to the one that's closest, Call of The Honeyguide reports. They are even clever enough to inspect the entrances to the hives in the morning, when the bees are docile.
Another interesting fact: When a bird arrives at the bee hive, it perches close by and emits an "indication call," AnimalWise reports. In the study, the researchers noted that when issuing this call, the bird used a softer tone, and there were longer intervals between successive notes. The bird's response was diminished, and it didn't respond much to whistling or shouting by humans, and usually remained quiet after a while. When approached by the honey hunters, it flew to a branch closest to the hive, sometimes after circling the nest. If the hunter couldn't find the nest, the bird either left the area or began another guiding session to another hive.
The symbiotic relationship between the honeyguide and humans developed over a huge span of time, possibly stretching as far back as our prehistoric ancestors, Call of The Honeyguide notes.
This beautifully illustrated painting of the greater honeyguide was completed in 1838.
This beautifully illustrated painting of the greater honeyguide was completed in 1838.
Nicolas Huet le Jeune and Jean-Gabriel Pretre Wikimedia Commons
Greater honeyguides are widely distributed throughout sub-Saharan Africa, except for a small stretch in the southwestern portion of Africa that consists of Namibia, Botswana, and part of South Africa, according to AnimalDiversityWeb.
Interestingly, even though greater honeyguides form symbiotic relationships with humans, they are parasitic upon other birds. Breeding between September and October, the females lay their eggs in the nests of other species. She usually lays one egg per nest, for a total of between four and eight eggs per breeding season. Once she lays an egg in a host nest, she pierces the host's eggs in order to ensure that her chick survives. Birds who have been parasitized then incubate and raise the honeyguide chicks as their own. Females also time the breeding so that their eggs will hatch at the same time as the eggs of the host they parasitize. Honeyguide eggs take about 18 days to hatch, and if she lays her eggs too late, the surrogate mother won't incubate the eggs because she'll realize the eggs aren't hers.
The honeyguide chicks also have a somewhat bloodthirsty side. When a chick hatches, it uses its toothed, hooked bill to kill other chicks in the nest, or like its real mom, to pierce any unhatched eggs. If the chick is successful, it will grow rapidly since it is usually the only chick in the nest and it benefits from the wealth of food brought by the parents. Fledging after about 30 to 40 days, the youngsters are often fed by the parents for another seven to 10 days, AnimalDiversityWeb reports. They reach reproductive maturity when they are about one year old.
Then it's time for the greater honeyguides to start thinking about the birds and bees (perhaps not in this order) once again.
Note: The video features the Hadza people of Tanzania.
More about ordinary extraordinary, Bird, greater honeyguide, larvae eggs in bee hive, live on wax
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