Wild honeyguide birds and humans have hunted for honey together in Africa for centuries, if not longer. In some parts of the continent, the process starts when a hunter makes a loud, trilling “brr-hm” sound to attract the dull brown birds.
They hop from tree to tree and chatter eagerly as they lead the honey hunter to a beehive in a baobab or other tree. After the human has looted the honey, the honeyguide dines on the beeswax left behind.
A new study has found evidence that the famously resourceful honey badger also cooperates with honeyguide birds, but questions remain. The animals have poor eyesight and hearing, making it difficult for them to follow the birds. But as anyone who has ever watched a nature documentary or YouTube video about honey badgers knows, never count them out of anything.
Where Are Birds and Badgers Working Together?
The paper seeks to test what has become a popular legend outside of Africa, the story of a Disneyesque alliance between honey-loving badgers and a helpful bird. Young researchers interviewed 400 honey hunters from nine different African countries to gather anecdotal intel on badger-bird relations. Despite the Western legend, 80 percent of respondents said they had never seen the two species interact.
The researcher heard a different story in Tanzania, however, where many hunters said they’d seen the animals work together to harvest honey. In the community with the highest number of reports, some 61 percent of Hadzabe hunters claimed to have seen the two cooperate.
“Hadzabe hunter-gatherers quietly move through the landscape while hunting animals with bows and arrows, so they are poised to observe badgers and honeyguides interacting without disturbing them,” says Brian Wood, an anthropologist at the University of California-Los Angeles, in a press release. He helped to oversee the project, along with researchers from the University of Cambridge and the University of Cape Town.
A honeyguide bird feeds on beeswax in Mozambique. (Credit: Dominic Cram)
What’s So Different About Tanzanian Badgers?
Researchers speculate that badgers in Tanzania may have developed a special skill and are passing it down from generation to generation. Or humans may be confounding the evidence somehow.
“Observers can’t know for sure who the honeyguide bird is talking to, them or the badger,” says Dominic Cram, an ecologist at the University of Cambridge, in a press release. “But we have to take these interviews at face value. Three communities report to have seen honeyguide birds and honey badgers interacting, and it’s probably no coincidence that they’re all in Tanzania.”
At some point in the distant past, the birds may have switched from working with the small badgers to allying with the larger and more capable humans, who were better at emptying out hives and subduing the bees.
“It’s an intriguing idea but hard to test,” says Claire Spottiswoode, a biologist from the University of Cambridge, in a press release.
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