How We Use Birds to Hunt for Honey

Yes, the birds and the bees—literally

Honey

Honey

A spoonful of honey worth two birds in the bush.Max Falkowitz

It might sound just like an awkward sex conversation between parents and children, but it turns out the birds and the bees have a more literal connection than we might think. An article from NPR's The Salt reports on a new study that found that the African Greater honeyguide, a bird that has traditionally lead mankind to areas where honey is present, actually listens for human response to help guide them. As in in any relationship, communication is key.

The woman behind the study, published in the most recent issue of Science, is Claire Spottiswoode, a researcher at the University of Cambridge, who first learned about the honeyguide as a child in South Africa. And whereas scientist H. A. Isack had published a study about human interaction with honeyguides in 1989, also in Science, Spottiswoode wanted to know if there were specific human sounds that attracted or repelled the birds. Turns out, the birds listened for a specific call—no random shout or noise would do the trick. When hearing this call, the birds would be more response, and humans would be three times more likely to have a successful honey hunt. What's perhaps most intriguing, though, is that there is no one specific call, as people all over the continent communicate with the bird differently.

“The new finding shows that honeyguides pay special attention not just to sounds made by humans, but specifically to the sounds that are designed by humans to attract honeyguides,” anthropologist Richard Wrangham is quoted as saying in the article.

So now that Wrangham and Spottiswoode know that honeyguides listen for a specific call, but that call is different all over Africa, they’re trying to answer their next question: The birds are not likely born knowing what call to listen for, so how have humans conditioned them over the years?

“The relationship is likely to be thousands, even millions of years old, but the relationship certainly has changed through space and time—involving different acoustic attractors and different forms of ‘repayment’ to honeyguides,” Wrangham says in the article.

Turns out, human-bird relationships aren’t so different from human-human ones. There’s no one mode of communication that works best for all relationships—it’s about learning what works best for yours.