Humans don't usually work well with wild animals. But one bird species, dubbed the Honeyguide, is part of a mutualistic partnership with humans that dates back to at least 1588.
You see, the Honeyguide faces a daily dilemma. It wishes to feast upon the rich, tasty contents of a bees' nest-- the larva and wax-- but it cannot easily break through the hive's defenses. So, for ages, the Honeyguide has enlisted the help of a large bumbling mammal. This mammal knows how to break into a beehive, and craves the honey inside, but cannot easily find the nests. So, our magnanimous Honeyguide* friend leads humans to a beehive, making repeated chattering sounds to keep the humans on the right track. When they get there, the human breaks into the hive, feasts on the honey within, and leaves chunks of beeswax and larva for the birds. It is a win-win scenario.
While this behaviour has long been known, scientists led by Claire Spotiswoode have now discovered a particularly exciting new element: specific two-way communication. Honeyguides respond best to humans who make a distinctive call-- a loud trill followed by "brr-hm." They react to this call with vocal chattering of their own, to draw the human's attention to the bird's presence, and are far more attentive to humans who make this specific call. In other words, we are sending a clear message to the Honeyguides, and they in turn have made themselves clear to us. This seems to be the first certain example of human-nonhuman two-way communication in the wild.
One cannot help but imagine a mother Honeyguide lecturing her children.
"Now, the humans are useful, and strong, but a bit simple. We've managed to train them to say one of our words (but it won't sound quite right-- take pity on their impoverished vocal apparatus!), so keep your ears open for a "brr-hm" call. Once you have touched base with a human, remember that they have extremely limited vision and locomotion- obviously, they cannot fly, and can you believe that they only have three types of color-sensitive cones? --"
At this point, little Beaky interrupts her mother, "Mom, what?! What does that mean? What would it be like to see the world through human eyes?'
Shaking her head, the mother replies, "We can only imagine! Now pay attention, Beaky-- like I was saying, they have trouble seeing and hearing us. So, it is best to return to the human time and time again with lots of encouragement-- keep making a loud chattering call to support and guide them. Once you get to the beehive, you will reap the rewards of your patience!"
Is this the only instance of humans and wild animals "talking" back and forth? Probably not. Dolphins help fishermen hunt in some areas of the world, and a famous orca named Old Tom collaborated with whalers (so that he could feast on the tongues before leaving the bodies, and the oil, to us.) But these animals tended to communicate to us-- not to respond to our communications. Here, we see clear evidence that Honeyguides react to intentional communication by humans-- and respond in kind.
* Despite widespread rumors, the Honeyguide actually is not known to cooperate with the internet-famous honey badger.
When asked the right way, a savvy bird species steers African hunter-gatherers to honey. All it takes is a loud trill followed by a grunt that sounds like “brrr-hm.” Birds known as greater honeyguides (Indicator indicator) lead hunter-gatherers in Mozambique to honey-rich bees’ nests after hearing humans make this signature call, say evolutionary ecologist Claire Spottiswoode of the University of Cambridge and her colleagues. In exchange, the birds get human-aided access to perilous-to-reach food, the scientists report in the July 22 Science. The new study provides the first solid evidence of two-way, collaborative communication between humans and a nonhuman animal in the wild. In some parts of the world, dolphins help fishermen herd fish into nets. But it’s unclear whether these dolphins respond to specific calls from fishermen.