Honeycatchers – small, brown-white birds – have a knack for finding beehives. A welcome skill for human lovers of sweet things, too. In turn, skilled human honey hunters have many tricks to flush the bees from their nest and then open the hive. This makes them the perfect duo for honey hunting.
To find each other, both birds and humans have developed special sounds. These human sounds vary by culture: in northern Mozambique, a group of honey hunters growls, while in the Hadzabe tribe in northern Tanzania they whistle. Research shows that birds respond to a familiar sound coming from their area three times more than they respond to a lure coming from another area.
This is reflected in the honey harvest: when a Tanzanian honey hunter tried snorting from Mozambique, he found less than half the usual amount of honey. Hunters are aware of this, they learn the local call from their parents or grandparents and are not allowed to deviate from it.
The researchers explain honeyhunters’ sensitivity to local call through learned behavior: If birds are naturally attracted to certain human sounds, a call from another area will work as well. The researchers wrote that birds have an innate tendency to cooperate with humans in hunting honey. For example, honey hunters also try to get people to follow them in areas where this is not common.
“This is an important study that advances our understanding of cultural coevolution,” said John Marzluff, a professor emeritus at the University of Washington who specializes in the relationship between humans and birds. “Unfortunately, these kinds of amazing cooperation will increasingly disappear as people start eating high-calorie, easy-to-find foods like refined sugar. What will birds do next?”
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