OUPA AND THE HONEYGUIDE ne of the last memories I have of my grandfather is him sitting on a bench in his small East Rand garden, with a perky yellow-breasted bird perched on his shoulder. I was initially mystified as to the identity of this bird, but I did note that it had unusually wide, tubeshaped nostrils and oddly, two toes pointing forwards and two pointing back. The clue that gave it away was the story of how Oupa had found the little bird. Following up on a stench emanating from the roof of his house, he discovered a hoopoe nest. (Hoopoes have notoriously bad nest hygiene, as a defence mechanism to keep predators away.) But, instead of beaky hoopoe chicks, he found this guy. So the bird was definitely a nest parasite, of which there are three families found in southern Africa: viduine finches,
Ocuckoos and honeyguides. After a bit more digging, I pinned down the bird’s identity as a juvenile greater honeyguide. As you probably already know, honeyguides are famous for their symbiotic relationship with humans, as evidenced by the bird’s common name and its scientific name: Indicator indicator. (Surely the easiest scientific name to remember!) Being led through the bush to a beehive by an excitedly chattering honeyguide is always a memorable birding experience, especially since it’s becoming a rare privilege in today’s modern world of vanishing habitats. The bird produces an incessant, penetrating sound like a box of matches being shaken, usually from a perch on a nearby branch. When approached, it flutters to the next branch, enticing you on and on until you reach the hive. Now the deal is simple: You must open up the hive and can take the honey as reward, leaving the bee pupae and wax for your avian partner in crime. The wax is digested by special enzymes in the bird’s gut and its thick skin affords it some protection against bee stings, although it’s certainly not immune. As a brood parasite, honeyguides time their breeding to coincide with that of their hosts: mainly hole-nesting species like barbets, woodpeckers, wrynecks, kingfishers, bee-eaters, tits, martins, swallows, chats, starlings, petronias and of course, hoopoes. Their thickshelled eggs hatch rapidly, after which a gruesome and seldomwitnessed drama unfolds in the darkness. Still naked and blind, the young honeyguide digs its spiny heels in and swivels its head around until it finds a smooth surface like an egg or a foster sibling. Using special temporary hooks on its bill, it latches on, biting and shaking for a few minutes to ensure it will be the only recipient of its foster parents’ provisioning. Even once it has left the nest, it begs so vociferously that it often triggers the parental instinct of passing birds, including its own biological parents. That memory of my grandfather came back to me years later when I arrived at my house in Pretoria to find a greater honeyguide begging from a hoopoe on my lawn. In a decade of living there, I had never seen or heard a honeyguide in my garden, yet there it was. Then, when I removed a few tiles to clean out the remnants of a beehive from my roof, no fewer than seven lesser honeyguides showed up ( Indicator minor – easy), no doubt thanks to their keen sense of smell. Don’t underestimate the sneakiness of the honeyguide!