Humans have had symbiotic relationships with domesticated animals for over ten thousand years. Many domesticated animals, like dogs or horses, have been selectively bred over the millennia to respond to human behaviors and be docile. It’s much rarer for wild animals to respond to human interaction in a predictable way, yet a new study has shown that some wild birds can respond to human speech sounds without the need for domestication or training.
A recent publication in Science shows that a type of wild African bird called the “honeyguide,” or Indicator indicator, will lead humans to honeybee hives when sung to in a particular way. According to the research, this type of relationship is fairly unique:
This interaction suggests that the birds are able to attach a specific meaning of cooperation to the human’s call—a rare case of mutualism between humans and a wild animal.
The birds will not react to just any sound, but instead only respond to particular vocalizations that hunters have learned to make. The birds need no prior training or habituation to the calls; their reactions seem to be innate. However, this theory is complicated by the fact that separate populations of honeyguide birds throughout Africa respond to different vocalizations; while the desire to cooperate with humans is innate, this might imply that the birds are not born with an understanding of the human calls, but instead learn them.
According to the published research, the birds will lead humans to honey roughly two out of every three times they are called to:
The production of this sound increased the probability of being guided by a honeyguide from about 33 to 66% and the overall probability of thus finding a bees’ nest from 17 to 54%, as compared with other animal or human sounds of similar amplitude.
Another researcher who has worked with these remarkable birds, anthropologist Brian Wood of Yale University, believes this relationship between the honeyguide birds and humans could be millions of years old. While the birds might have evolved a rare innate desire to lead humans to honey, the reasons why the birds might benefit from this relationship are still unknown.