The greater honeyguide is an African bird whose naming is spot on as it leads people who know how to talk to them to troves of honeycombs according to a new study.

Humans Are Following Birds To Find Honey
Image source: Wikimedia Commons

Study explains the human bird honey relationship

In 1989, a scientist named H.A. Isack published an analysis of the honeyguide in the journal Science in which he confirmed the legend of the honeyguide and caught the attention of 11-year-old Claire Spottiswoode who is now at the University of Cambridge and has continued the work of Isack.

“They’re definitely not domesticated, and they’re in no way coerced,” says Spottiswoode. “And they’re not taught in any conventional way as well. Humans are not deliberately going out there and training honeyguides.”

“By following honeyguides, human honey hunters can really increase their rate of finding bees’ nests,” she continued.

The birds are not acting entirely altruistically, humans locate the honeycomb, smoke the bees into submission, and harvest the honey while leaving the beeswax for the birds to enjoy.

Spottiswoode studied this process by following honey hunters in Mozambique and describes the calls used by the hunters as a “brr” followed by a guttural noise and called it “a rather unlikely noise.”

In her own study that was published in Science this week, she maintains that mastery of the call tripled a hunter’s chance of finding honey.

Good fun for the writer of the study on this unique bird

“I don’t think I’ve ever had as much fun in my life,” she recently told NPR. “It was tremendously good fun.”

“The new finding shows that honeyguides pay special attention not just to sounds made by humans, but specifically to the sounds that are designed by humans to attract honeyguides,” says honeyguide expert Richard Wrangham, a biological anthropologist at Harvard University.

Wrangham suspects that this human bird relationship could go back for over a million years.

Brian Wood of Yale University also talked to NPR following the publication of the recent report.

“The relationship is likely to be thousands, even millions of years old, but the relationship certainly has changed through space and time — involving different acoustic attractors and different forms of ‘repayment’ to honeyguides,” Wood wrote to NPR via email. “In some areas birds are actively repaid by human honey hunters and in other places and times, humans actively reduce the bird’s ‘payoff.’ The relationship thus involves elements of both mutualism and manipulation.”

“Humans use diverse forms of acoustic signals to attract honeyguides, including spoken words, shouted words, whistles and other calls (like the Yao brrr-hmm) to attract honeyguides. All these strategies are the product of our species’ intelligence and some of them rely upon our capacity for language,” he said.

Wood who studied the birds in Tanzania has plans to work with Spottiswoode to try to get an understanding of how this collaboration evolved and the importance of language. He also points out that honeyguides are not fantastic parents as they lay their eggs in the nests of other birds and essentially abandon them so their knowledge is not passed on to the younger generation.

“I hope they will test the idea that the way that young birds learn to pay attention to the call is by observing adults,” he says.

As Africa’s economy evolves, fewer and fewer people will hunt for honey when they can simply purchase it and wonders what will happen to the birds.  “Do their numbers fall? Do they lose the guiding habit? Should managers arrange for honey collection in national parks in order to promote honeyguide conservation?” Wrangham wrote to NPR.  “These would be important questions to investigate.”