Male honeyguide in the Niassa National Reserve
Male honeyguide image via Claire N. Spottiswoode


Birds are fascinating creatures that have captured man’s imagination since the dawn of time, but not a lot was really understood about them. We figured out thousands of years ago how to train them to carry messages, so we knew they were smart. But in the last few decades, researchers have come to find that they are far more clever than we ever gave them credit for. Now, it turns out that our winged friends are capable of working with humans without what could be thought of as traditional training. That’s the case with wild, southeast African birds known as honeyguides, whose willingness to lead the Yao tribesman to local caches of honey has recently come under scrutiny.


Some are calling it “a rare tale of conscious teamwork between humans and wild animals.” That’s because these birds are performing what might be considered Pied Piper feats all on their own. Don’t think for a minute, however, that their actions are totally altruistic. They’re looking for a reward. The incentive is the honey they desire that without the tribesmen’s help would be far too risky to mine on their own. The Yao live in Mozambique, and the honeyguides or indicator birds, as they’re also known, are their partners in crime when it comes to a little B&E work of the local hives.


African bee hive located by honeyguides
African bee hive image via Claire N. Spottiswoode


Harvesting Honey

So, this is how it works: when the birds discover a beehive, they might go in search of a human and get their attention with a unique chirp. Once alerted, the local will then gather a helper or two and arm him or herself with a torch. They need the smoke to get into the hive without getting stung to death. The bird will then fly from tree to tree guiding them back toward the hidden hive in order to harvest the honey. Once it’s collected, they want their share. Interestingly, it can work both ways. If need be, the Yao can also solicit the help of the honeyguides with their own unique call, which has been handed down through countless generations.

Bird Calls

For their part, the tribesmen say they learned the routine from their fathers and their father’s fathers. The call used to alert the birds they’re on the hunt for honey is a 'brrr-hm' sound, which in Yao is a random word in the their native language. Researchers tried using it and an unrelated bird call in various experiments and found that the 'brrr-hm' noise “increased the probability of being guided by a honeyguide from 33 percent to 66 percent, and the overall probability of being shown a bees' nest from 16 percent to 54 percent, compared to the control sounds," said zoologist Claire Spottiswoode. The results have led her and her colleagues to the conclusion that this is a sign of  “conscious communication” on the part of the honeyguides.

African Zoologists

Spottiswoode, an African bird researcher at the prestigious University of Cambridge in the U.K., and her crew have been documenting the amazing working relationship and mutual cooperation between the Yao and the birds. Honeyguides are what are known as nest parasites in the avian world. That simply means they’ll use other birds’ nests for their own reproductive purposes by laying eggs and then leaving them for the original nest owner to the task of hatching and raising them. Doing so rules out the possibility that the birds learn the behavior (in relation to answering the calls of the Yao) through parental training. More research needs to be conducted in order to gain a better understanding of this unusual phenomenon.