A Look at the Intriguing Lives of Honeyguides

Honeyguides, also known as indicator birds or honeybirds, are a relatively small Old World family of near-passerine birds, related to woodpeckers and barbets. Honeyguides are entirely parasitic, laying their eggs in the already occupied, but temporarily vacated, nests of other hole-nesting species such as barbets, kingfishers, bee-eaters, woodpeckers and tinkerbirds. For this reason, honeyguides are often treated as pariahs by other birds in their neighborhood. Birding enthusiasts agree that these aggressive, opportunistic little birds are fascinating to watch.

Seventeen species in four genera make up the family Indicatoridae, all of which have light outer tail feathers and most of which are rather dull-colored, although a few species have some bright yellow in their plumage. The majority of honeyguide species are found in Africa with two being found in Asia. As brood parasites, during the breeding season honeyguides generally lay one egg a day over a five to seven day period. Each egg is laid in a different “host” nest, leaving the adopted parents to hatch and raise the invader offspring. Honeyguide nestlings puncture the other un-hatched eggs in the nest and kill any hatchlings with their strong claws and hooked bills, alternatively they push their adopted siblings out of the nest and to certain death.

Sixteen of the honeyguide species sing, producing a variety of sounds to suit the circumstances. They have strong wings and are able to carry out complicated aerial maneuvers. During courtship, males woo potential mates with an impressive display of flying and singing, the latter being accompanied by the fluffing out of feathers, arching of the neck and a quivering tail.

Honeyguides are so named for the amazing ability of some of the species to guide humans and other large honey-eating mammals directly to bee colonies. This is no selfless act of generosity though, and once the beehive has been opened by the obliging mammal, the honeyguide feasts on the remaining beeswax and larvae, as well as waxworms – medium sized white caterpillars that live as nest parasites in beehives. In the absence of bee colonies, honeyguides will eat flying and crawling insects, spiders and sometimes plant matter. They are adept at catching flying insects in flight and their bills are well suited to probing for insects in tree bark. Honeyguides are also known to frequent camping grounds in search of food, and they will aggressively ward off any other birds that may show an interest in their food source.

Although no honeyguide species are currently considered by the World Conservation Union (IUCN) to be threatened, three species – the Malaysian honeyguide, Yellow-rumped honeyguide and Dwarf honeyguide – are in danger of becoming threatened, mainly as a result of habitat destruction due to extensive deforestation in Africa and Asia. Positive steps will be taken by the World Conservation Union in an attempt to ensure that these fascinating birds will still be around for future generations of birding enthusiasts to enjoy.