Cross-species cooperation, humans and birds in Mozambique

Calling to each other with chirps and yelps, a species of bird and a tribe of humans in southeast Africa forage for honey in unison. The birds lead the way to hidden beehives, which are camouflaged among high tree branches. The tribesmen crack open the hives and share the sweet spoils of victory with their bird friends…

A trio of zoologists led by Claire Spottiswoode, an African bird researcher at the University of Cambridge in the UK, has just documented this astounding relationship. The particular players are Yao tribesmen in Mozambique and wild local birds called honeyguides…As the zoologists describe in a paper published…in the journal Science, the communication and cooperation goes both ways. When the birds spy a beehive on their own, they can find a nearby human, get his or her attention with a signature chirp, then flit from tree to tree toward the hive. Yao tribesmen can solicit the help of nearby honeyguides with their own unique hail, a birdcall handed down through countless generations.

“What’s remarkable about the honeyguide-human relationship is that it involves free-living wild animals… [which] evolved through natural selection, probably over the course of hundreds of thousands of years,” Spottiswoode says. Nobody is training these birds. On their own, the birds can’t crack open beehives, and the hives are often hidden away from human eyes. So everybody wins. Well, except the bees.

Interesting article, interesting experiment. A few new questions raised, of course. This is proper science, after all.

Thanks, Honeyman

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