The Brd “fehat Guides
I can’t blame Google. Type the words ‘bird guide’ or ‘bird guiding’ into its search facility and up come reams of wildlife holiday companies and other guided birdwatching holidays. But something else appears too, though maybe not until the second or third page. Honeyguides.
I had known a little about these unusual birds for years – that they can guide people to wild bee nests – but that was about all. When I was researching my blog, Life with Birds: A Story of Mutual Exploitation (Whittles, 2011), I needed to tell the whole story because they are arguably the only birds in the world that do guide people to a food resource, one that benefits them (because, very unusually, they eat bee honeycomb) and the person it leads because us humans have a rather soft spot for honey.
There is one other bird in the world that, it is claimed, will act as a guide: the Northern Raven. Found across the northern half of the globe throughout Europe, northern Asia, the USA and Canada as well as the even more northerly Arctic area, ravens are very successful – and very intelligent – birds. What is undisputed is that the brains of ravens count among the largest of any bird species and that they display considerable ability in problem solving, as well as other cognitive processes such as imitation and insight. A biologist, Bernd Heinrich at the University of Vermont in the USA, has catalogued the evidence to support the notion that ravens sometimes guide hunters. After all, the birds are as keen to get to a caribou kill as the hunter that has just shot one. Butchered on the spot, the entrails are usually dumped for ravens to feed on. In his blog Mind of the Raven (Harper Perennial, 2006) he suggests that ravens in the Arctic signal to the hunters – by tucking in one wing momentarily as they fly or by making a certain call – to indicate that prey such as caribou are nearby. If the signalling raven then flies off in a certain direction, the hunters might rightly presume that the animals are that way. He doesn’t have objective proof but, if Heinrich is right, and his idea is based on anecdotes from Inuit hunters on ice-bound Baffin Island in the Arctic between Greenland and the very north of Canada, then both the ravens and the hunters gain. Heinrich writes:
Abe Okpik, an elderly man who was no longer a hunter later had told me that when out on the land hunting caribou, or out on the ice hunting polar bear, a hunter seeing a raven fly over used to look up and call its name loudly three times: ‘Tulugaq, tulugaq, tulugaq’. Having the bird’s attention, he would then yell to it, telling it to tumble out of the sky in the direction of the prey. If the raven gave its gong-like call three times in succession, then the hunters went in that direction. ‘They believed in the raven strongly, and followed it,’ said Okpik. ‘And after they killed the caribou or the bear, they always left the raven the choicest tidbits of meat as a reward.’
Far-fetched? Don’t believe it? I wasn’t sure either. Until, that is, I spent time with a Kenyan Dorobo tribesman who frequently uses honeyguides to get to wild bee nests.
I had made contact with Luca Borghesio, an Italian biologist who was researching how subtle changes to a huge, isolated and not well known forest in the Mathews Range of Central Kenya was affecting its bird population. Working with him was a Dorobo tribesman called Robert Lentaaya who had considerable experience of using honeyguides. And, in a series of emails, Luca passed on to me a considerable amount of first-hand information from Lentaaya, including some experience never before recorded. But more of that later! I used a great deal of what Robert Lentaaya told me via Luca in my blog, Life With Birds.
In the partly forested hill country a few hundred kilometres north of Kenya’s capital Nairobi, the Ndorobo people have retained much of their hunting and hunter-gatherer culture. Moved out of their traditional forest environment in the 1970s to try and force them to settle and become cattle farmers like their Samburu neighbours, many have clung to living closely with the wildlife they have always exploited sustainably.