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Humans And Wild Birds Strike A Deal To Hunt For Honey And Wax

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In Africa, a "sweet" collaboration between humans and a certain species of wild birds has caught the eye of scientists.

With the help of a wax-eating bird species known as greater honeyguides, humans are able to find the nests of bees and harvest honey, a new study suggests.

It's a rare kind of mutualism and cooperation between humans and free-living wild animals.

How Humans And Honeyguides Work Together

Humans often domesticate and teach dogs, cormorants and falcons to help them hunt for food.

However, a cooperation between humans and non-domesticated animals is much rarer.

Such is the case between greater honeyguides and people in some parts of Africa.

Thanks to the work of ethnobiologist Hussein Isack, it has long been known that both honeyguides and humans team up to find wild bee nests, which offers them an invaluable resource for calorie-rich food.

Honeyguides perform a special call to attract the attention of humans and then fly from tree to tree to signal the direction of the bees' nest.

Humans are appropriate collaborators because they can quell stinging bees with smoke and successfully open the nest. This provides wax for both humans and the honeyguides.

Two-Way Communication

Now, an experiment conducted in Mozambique in Southeastern Africa found that the rare human-wild bird interaction has an added dimension: humans also use specialized calls to recruit the assistance of honeyguides.

A new report in Mozambique's Niassa National Reserve revealed that by using these specialized calls, humans and greater honeyguides can significantly boost their odds of locating bees' nests.

Claire Spottiswoode, an evolutionary biologist from Cambridge, found that there is a two-way communication between honeyguides and humans. The wild birds can respond and adapt to the signals given by humans who seek their collaboration — a reciprocal relationship.

Spottiswoode, who is a specialist in bird behavioral ecology, says what is special about the relationship is that it occurs without any traditional kind of coercion or training. She says the human-wild bird interaction likely evolved over thousands of years of natural selection.

"The greater honeyguide is a master of deception and exploitation as well as cooperation," says Spottiswoode.

Findings Of The Experiment

Spottiswoode and her colleagues conducted an experiment with the support of honey-hunters in the Yao community. They tested out whether the honeyguides could distinguish the signals from other sounds.

The honey-hunting call used by humans in the region for generations is a loud trill followed by a brief grunt. "Brrr-hm."

The research team recorded the "brrr-hm" calls, as well as two other control sounds — arbitrary words from hunters and the calls of other species.

Scientists found that when the sounds were played in the wild during experimental hunting trips, the honeyguides were more likely to respond to the "brrr-hm" sound than to any other sounds.

Indeed, the "brrr-hm" sound elevated the probability of attracting a honeyguide from 33 percent to 66 percent and the probability of being shown a bees' nest from 16 percent to 54 percent, says Spottiswoode. The "brrr-hm" signal tripled the chances of a successful collaboration.

Why Is The Collaboration Important?

Researchers say the foraging relationship between humans and honeyguides is important because bees' nests are hidden in high crevices that are inaccessible. Plus, bees can sting ferociously.

The honeyguide waits while humans undertake the risky task of smoking the bees with a flaming bundle of twigs. Humans then extract the honey from within.

There is no competition between the two collaborators. Scientists say humans take the honey, while the honeyguides eat the wax combs.

Details of the study are published in the journal Science.

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