Man and Bird Chat While Honey Hunting

A study suggests that humans and avians in sub-Saharan Africa communicate to find and mutually benefit from the sweet booty.

By | July 25, 2016

The greater honeyguide (Indicator indicator)FLICKR, WILFERD DUCKITTThe Yao people of Mozambique have cooperated with small birds called honeyguides for generations to find bees nests dripping with sweet, calorie-dense honey. Now, researchers from the University of Cambridge and South African institutions have found that the partnership is more complex than the human hunters simply following the birds to the hives. The team’s results, published last week (July 22) in Science, suggest that Yao hunters vocally communicate with the birds in order to recruit them into the quest for honey.

The key to the mutually beneficial relationship—humans extract honey and leave exposed beeswax for the birds to eat—is a “brrrr-hm” sound that Yao hunters make when they’re on the hunt for honey. “They told us that the reason they make this ‘brrrr-hm’ sound, when they’re walking through the bush looking for bees’ nests, is that it’s the best way of attracting a honeyguide—and of maintaining a honeyguide’s attention once it starts guiding you,” study coauthor Claire Spottiswoode of Cambridge told BBC News. “In particular, we wanted to distinguish whether honeyguides responded to the specific information content of the ‘brrr-hm’ call—which, from a honeyguide’s point of view, effectively signals ‘I’m looking for bees’ nests’—or whether the call simply alerts honeyguides to the presence of humans in the environment.”

Spottiswoode and colleagues made recordings of the “brrrr-hm” sound and other noises, including  the Yao word for “honey” and the sounds of hunters shouting their own names. They then followed Yao honey gatherers on dozens of hunts playing these different sounds through a loudspeaker. The researchers found that hunts accompanied by the “brrrr-hm” call recruited a honeyguide more than 60 percent of the time. Hunts during which other sounds were played only recruited honeyguides about 25 percent of the time. Playing the “brrrr-hm” call also tripled the chances of successfully finding a beehive during these hunts.

“This is an important paper which experimentally verifies what Yao honey hunters say is true: that honeyguides are attracted by the specialized calls honey-hunters use,” Brian Wood, an anthropologist at Yale University who was not involved in the work, told Smithsonian.

Biological anthropologist Richard Wrangham of Harvard University echoed this excitement for the paper. “[This study] shows just how tightly attuned they are to human sounds,” he told BBC News. “They’re not just generally interested in weird noises - anything loud or unusual or whatever. They have been trained, as it were, to look for humans. That really supports the notion that this is an evolved, co-evolutionary relationship.”

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Comments

Avatar of: wctopp

wctopp

Posts: 110

July 25, 2016

The title's wrong.  The people talk to the birds but the birds don't talk to the people.

Avatar of: Mwahana

Mwahana

Posts: 1

July 26, 2016

This is a very old culture NOT only amongst Yaos in Mozambique but also Tumbukas and Ngonis in nothern Malawi. I am 60 years but remember doing the same with my late father when in my teens.Point of Correction is that these birds do Not feed on BeesWax but Bees Larvae. It was normal practice to leave some larvae behind after collecting honey.....

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