, also known as honey birds
, indicator birds
, and simply honeyguides
, (family Indicatoridae
) are several dull-colored near passerine
bird species of the order Piciformes
, notable for their method of obtaining food. They have an Old World tropical distribution, with the greatest number of species in Africa and a few in Asia.
The honeyguide feeds exclusively on the contents of bee colonies: beeswax, honey, and bee larvae. However, since it is unable to open colonies by itself, the African species enlist the help of other animals - typically the ratel (or African honey badger), the baboon, or the human.
After locating a hive, the honeyguide seeks out a suitable "follower", which it then leads to the hive by means of a series of characteristic vocalizations, gestures, and flight patterns. The follower is expected to open the colony or hive, incapacitate the adult bees, feed on the contents, and leave remnants for the honeyguide. The bird is rarely disappointed in this respect, if only because its symbiotic stomach bacteria enable it to digest beeswax, which its followers tend to ignore. Bushmen tradition says that the honeyguide must be thanked with a gift of honey, and that if it is not, it may lead its follower to a lion as punishment.
Although the Asian members of the Indicatoridae family are not known to recruit "followers" in their quest for honey, they are also referred to as "honeyguides", due to linguistic extrapolation
The legs of honeyguides differ in length from species to species, and are used by the birds in somewhat different ways while feeding on beeswax. The Scaly-throated Honeyguide (Indicator variegatus
) crouches over wax that is of large bulk, perching and pulling; it often holds a larger piece of wax between its legs, toes clamped about the front end, with the body touching the wax. Greater Honeyguides (Indicator indicator
) have longer, less feathered legs; they peck from side to side in a generally upright posture, not crouching. Lesser Honeyguides (Indicator minor
) sometimes crouch, but they do not generally clasp the wax. The more or less notched bill of adults of these species may help in freeing wax, as well as in aggressive “biting”. The Greater and Scaly-throated Honeyguides, when under pressure from numbers of others at a wax source, often pick off a piece of the material and fly with it to a secluded spot; they are often chased by others, but can lift and fly with pieces as heavy as 14 g. Lesser Honeyguides and Pallid Honeyguides (Indicator meliphilus
) rarely fly with large pieces of wax, but they do at times carry away a tiny fragment.
In addition to being a bee predator, a mutualist
with its follower species, and a symbiont
with its wax-digesting bacteria, the honeyguide is a brood parasite
. Honeyguide nestlings have been known to physically eject their host's chicks from the nest, and in some honeyguide species have hooks on their beaks with which to more easily wound or kill. The closely-related barbets are a frequent choice of host species.
Brood parasite and its Primary host(s)
Greater Honeyguide (Rollers, starlings, bee-eaters)
Lesser Honeyguide (Large barbets, woodpeckers)
Scaly-throated Honeyguide (Woodpeckers)
Information on the Family INDICATORIDAE (HONEYGUIDES)
Honeyguide's Revenge (A Traditional Zulu Story)