A New Understanding of Honeyguide Communication

A new study from the Honeyguide Research Project shows that Greater Honeyguides learn the distinct calls that honey-hunters in different parts of Africa use to communicate with them, facilitating cooperation between species. Greater Honeyguides are wax-eating African birds that lead people to bees’ nests, so that we humans can open the nest using fire and tools, revealing honey for us and wax for the bird. To attract honeyguides and coordinate a cooperative honey-hunt, human honey-hunters signal to honeyguides using specialized calls that vary culturally across Africa, from trills, grunts, and words to different types of whistles.

The new study using field experiments in Mozambique and Tanzania shows that honeyguides learn and prefer the calls of the local human culture they interact with, compared to those of a foreign culture. This implies that honeyguides can adjust to human cultural diversity, increasing the benefits of cooperation for both people and birds: effective communication between species makes honeyguides more likely to interact with a cooperative human (and so get more wax), and humans more likely to interact with a cooperative honeyguide (and so get more honey). It also suggests that communication between humans and other species can assign meaning to arbitrary sounds in a similar manner to human language.

For example, the honeyguides in the Kidero Hills in Tanzania are over three times more likely to cooperate with people using the local Hadza whistle than people giving the ‘ foreign’ Yao trill and grunt. A similar trend was reported for the honeyguides in the other area, which were twice as likely to respond to the local calls rather than the foreign ones.

The discovery not only enhances our understanding of honeyguide behavior but also has potential implications for conservation efforts. This unique illustration of interspecies mutualism sheds light on avian intelligence and highlights the need to further explore the intricacies of communication among different species.

Please see: “Culturally determined interspecies communication between humans and honeyguides” by Claire Spottiswoode and Brian Wood, published in the journal Science on December 7, 2023.

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