Answering the call of the Greater honeyguide

It was a normal October morning here in the Waterberg mountains. Warm, sunny, just slight humid. I was working in Kololo’s river valley with another ranger cutting blue gum eucalyptus; an invasive tree species from Australia that can soak up over 100 litres of water per day. After you get into a flow cutting blue gum becomes almost meditative. The soft “thunk” of your panga chopping into the wet crunchy wood becomes rhythmic and hours go by surprisingly fast.

The call of a Greater honeyguide

The sound of pangas hard at work was suddenly joined by an urgent and repetitive animal voice. My first thought was that it must be a squirrel or some rodent alarm calling possibly for a bird of prey overhead. But then my memory clicked in and I recognized the persistent call. It was none other than a Greater honeyguide — and it was calling specifically to get MY attention, asking me to answer his call!

A mutualistic symbiotic relationship to human beings

The Greater honeyguide is a spectacular bird with a unique relationship to human beings. Back in the time of hunter-gatherers, humans and honeyguides had what we call a mutualistic symbiotic relationship. In other words both species benefit by interacting with one another.

Human-honeyguide encounters usually go something like this:

  • The Greater Honeyguide finds a productive beehive full of honey, but cannot break through the hives defences.
  • The Honeyguide flies away to elicit help from a nearby human.
  • When the Honeyguide finds its chosen human it calls repetitively to get his/her attention
  • If the human is receptive he/she will follow the calling Honeyguide as it leads the human from tree to tree.
  • Once the Honeyguide brings the human to the hive it will stop and wait while the human raids the hive for honey.
  • In return for its service the human lays out chunks of wax and bee larva for the honeyguide to eat (Surprisingly the Honeyguides don’t eat the Honey itself – only the wax and larva).

Following a Honeyguide into the bush

Remnants of our wild past and our relationship with nature have always interested me, so naturally, I couldn’t pass up this opportunity to follow a Honeyguide, so I dropped my panga and told my fellow ranger I was going on a quick adventure. When I reached the chirping Honeyguide’s perch it flew off and resumed its calling at a tree about 20 meters away. We continued like this as it guided me deeper and deeper into the bush. As nature guide, I love taking people on wilderness experiences, but I have to admit the thrill of allowing a wild animal to lead you through the bush is incomparable. Tales of Honeyguides leading people to black mambas when they refused to share the bounty of the beehive flicked through my mind.

After roughly a kilometre, my Honeyguide was joined by a second Honeyguide. I could not tell if they were rivals or mates, but they battered each other with their wings and flew off together; a flustered avian couple. When I no longer heard the chirping of my Honeyguide I decided it was time I re-join my fellow ranger.

Halfway through my walk back, the Honeyguide found me and began calling for my help once again. Although I wanted to follow it to the end, I had been away too long. Nature was literally calling me but I had to turn my back to fulfil my modern day obligations. Perhaps a metaphor for how we all live today.

When nature calls, will you answer?

In many parts of Africa the Honeyguides no longer call to us. Humans have stopped following them and so the birds have begun to forget their ancient relationship with us. But fortunately there are still a few of us that follow the Honeyguide. And so I ask you; when nature calls, will you answer?

Until next time,

Written by Cannon Winkler

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