strange behaviors

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K is for Killer Birds

Posted by Richard Conniff on September 2, 2013

Honeyguide Birds Kill Their Own Species’ Eggs to Eliminate Competition
Little Killers:  A honeyguide chick, in profile. (Photo: Claire Spottiswoode)

Dear Strange Behaviorists:  I’m just getting back from a week’s vacation.  Here’s one I wrote before I went away, for my wildlife blog at   Best wishes,  Richard Conniff

The 18th-century British country doctor Edward Jenner, best known for devising the first effective vaccine against smallpox, was also a close observer of the natural world. He spent 15 years studying cuckoos, and was widely ridiculed for his conclusions—namely that the birds are brood parasites, laying their eggs in the nests of other species. By itself, this was “a monstrous outrage on maternal affection,” according to Gilbert White, another naturalist of the day. It was also the origin of the term “cuckold” for a man with an unfaithful wife. To White, a clergyman, the whole thing sounded better suited to some sordid tropical nation than to the good English countryside.

But there was worse to come. Jenner reported that, soon after hatching, he watched as the young cuckoo deliberately shouldered the eggs of the host species out of the nest, killing off its potential rivals for food. Skeptics thought this was an outrageous fiction until another observer caught the murderous act on film, more than 125 years later.

Now a modern-day researcher has investigated brood parasitism in the southern Africa nation of Zambia and, as they say in murder mysteries, the plot thickens.

Writing in the journal Biology Letters, Claire Spottiswoode, from the University of Cambridge, describes her latest work on honeyguides, a bird species that has endeared itself by forming a mutually beneficial partnership with humans. The honeyguides love to eat beeswax, and to get it, they lead human honey-hunters to bee hives. The humans do the dirty work of climbing trees, smoking out the bees, and raiding the honey. Then the honeyguides get the wax that’s left behind.

But there’s a dark side to honeyguide life  … to read the whole article, click here.


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