In the forests of Mozambique, researchers found that honeyguides (a species of bird found in Africa) actually talk to humans.
While people regularly interpret what their domestic animals are saying (“Dave, the cat wants to be let out again!”), communication between humans and wild animals is quite uncommon. In the modern era, this has been limited to the case of bottlenose dolphins assisting humans in Brazil to catch fish.
So Are They Really Talking?
For centuries, human hunters in Africa have used honeyguides to find honey, but researchers wondered about the true nature of their collaboration.
It isn’t just a matter of the birds reacting to the presence of humans, they found. There is actually two-way communication over honey taking place, and it stands to benefit both parties.
What Is Happening Here?
The human hunters (in this case, Yao people who live in Mozambique’s Niassa National Reserve) call the honeyguides with a “Brr-hm” sound. Once the humans have attracted the birds’ attention, the honeyguides work to find the bees’ nests. Then the birds call out to the human hunters, directing them to the location of the nests.
The human hunters use smoke on the bees or break the nests open to reach the honey. The bees, for their part, take advantage of the humans’ assistance to get at the wax.
Honeyguides need help from others to survive. Like cuckoos, honeyguides require other birds’ nests to lay their eggs (which then includes killing off the others in the nest). More remarkably, however, honeyguides communicate with humans for their help in securing sustenance.
In other parts of Africa, people use different calls to attract honeyguides. Even though the sounds may be different, researchers now believe that collaboration between humans and honeyguides has evolved over thousands of years.
We haven’t had the blog quite that long, but talking about honeyguides reminds me of the time we talked about bird language and cowboys here…