Birds

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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!

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