Crying Wolf: Not Exclusive To Humans

For ulterior motives, when individuals alert others to a danger that doesn't exist it is called "crying wolf." This is a reference to the Aesop fable: "Boy who Cried Wolf." In a "dog-eat-dog" world however, this type of deceptive behavior was thought only to be inherent with homo sapiens - that other species on the evolutionary totem pole don't have the ability to grift.

However when we take a deeper dive, there is an African bird that not only is capable of this behavior, but is so skillful, it's a daily practice they put to use to secure sustenance.

Fork-Tailed Drongos speak with Forked Tongue

When it comes to ‘crying wolf,’ the forked-tail drongo has perfected the art. But instead of wolves this crafty bird actually 'cries hawk.' Being both thief and mimic, they imitate the predator alarm calls of meerkats and the pied babbler - namely the hawk - when they are foraging for food.

The prey they steal makes up approximately a quarter of their total calorie intake. And fifty-percent of these thefts involve a false alarm that fools their targets into seeking cover from an non-existent threat.

Skill inherent or learned?

According to researchers, the young drongos most likely pick up this special skill by watching adults. Juveniles often follow adults on these robbery missions and they then copy these false alarms for themselves after they understand how successful this behavior can be.

Do Drogos have competition?

Back in 1986, Charles Munn suggested that two birds – the white-winged shrike-tanager and the bluish-slate antshrike – perform similarly when seeking food. Others have since suggested that those birds are simply shouting aggressively, but Tom Flower’s study from the University of Cambridge shows that this clearly isn’t true for the fork-tailed drongos. Their mimicry is the real McCoy.

Like calling wolf . . .

Similar to when humans call wolf, one could ask the question: Does the drongo's mimicry eventually start to wear thin? For instance if it makes too many false alarms, might its target begin to think they are being duped? Particularly since the drongos lie about danger approximately three times as often as they tell the truth.

However there's not enough research conducted to date to prove this supposition. The babbler seems to have started to show some evidence. They start to ignore false versions of the drongo's calls in some regions when the calls are excessive. However, as versatile as the drongo is - they can switch up their calls if they sense they are becoming ineffective. For instance, their mimicked cry of a panicked starling will also send the babblers into flight quite often.


Primary Source: National Geographic