National Geographic : 1954 Apr
Honey-Guide: The Bird That Eats Wax 551 This Feathered African Entices Man and Animal to Raid Bees' Nests, Waits While They Steal Honey, Then Dines on the Comb BY HERBERT FRIEDMANN With Paintings by National Geographic Artist Walter A. Weber ONCE upon a time, says a Rhodesian fable, a little brownish bird came upon a dead elephant. "Ha," said he, "this is going to be my new home." So he made a mark on the carcass and flew away to call relatives and friends. Meanwhile, a mouse found the elephant, decided to make his home there, and began nibbling at the huge body. The bird, returning with his friends, angrily tried to evict the intruder. "This is my place," he cried. "No, it is mine," replied the mouse. A Bird Seeks Revenge So the two wrangled and fought until they decided to take the matter before the judge, who happened to be a bee. The bee deliberated gravely and handed down his decision: the elephant belonged to the mouse. Then the bird argued that he had found the body first, and called attention to the mark he had made to stake his claim. But the judge was unmoved. "You are lying," he said. "It is the mouse's property." From that day to this, say the Rhodesian natives, the bird and the bee have hated each other. At every opportunity, the bird gets revenge by leading men to the bee's nest and gloating silently while his human companions rob and destroy the enemy's home. Like many another piece of folklore, this fable is primitive man's attempt to explain a curious and wonderful fact. There is indeed such a bird, known as the honey-guide, pos sessing the extraordinary habit of leading men as well as animals to wild bees' nests (page 555). Neither vivid coat nor brilliant song dis tinguishes this bird. Yet it excites the interest of scientists by its remarkable behavior, un matched in the animal kingdom; by a fond ness for beeswax and ability to digest it; and by a cuckoolike practice of leaving eggs in other birds' nests. Puzzling problems associ ated with this bird have taken me twice to Africa. Honey-guides, cousins of the woodpeckers, make up a small family of 11 species. In the Himalayan forests lives the Orange-rumped variety, only member of the family with hand some plumage (page 556). The Malayan Honey-guide inhabits Malaya, Borneo, and Sumatra. Nine remaining species make their homes exclusively in Africa. We know almost nothing about some of these birds. Civilized man has never even seen Zenker's Honey-guide except for museum specimens brought out by native hunters from the dense forests of West Africa. Another, the Lyre-tailed Honey-guide, pro duces a peculiar tin-horn note in flight, caused in some way by the vibration of its curved tail feathers. Although this bird may be fairly common, it is so difficult to sight above the thick jungle that natives call it "the bird no body ever sees." Most of the honey-guides love beeswax and eat a good deal of it. So far as we know, however, only two-the Greater and the Scaly throated species-actually enlist cooperation in robbing bees. They alone deserve the title of guide. Even Ate Wax Candles Our story concerns the commonest of these, the Greater Honey-guide. About it we have learned much from intensive studies begun on The Author and the Artist Dr. Herbert Friedmann, distinguished ornithologist and biologist, is a leading authority on parasitic birds, of which the honey-guides form one group. This article is based on his survey of the birds in Africa during five months of 1950-51. Dr. Friedmann has led other ornithological expeditions to Africa and South America. He has written numerous books and articles on birds and their behavior, and on animal symbolism in art. The Smithsonian Institution, where Dr. Friedmann is Curator of Birds, will publish his The Honey-Guides this summer. Walter A. Weber, staff artist and naturalist of the National Geographic Society, ranks at the top of America's wildlife artists. A trained zoologist and botanist, he is as much at home painting a honey guide in the African bush as portraying a snake or woodpecker on his wooded 80 acres in Virginia. He toured the honey-guide's realm in 1952.