News / Science & Technology

Liar! Liar! African Bird Uses Elaborate Ruse to Steal Food

FILE - A drongo sits on a pole in a paddy field on the outskirts of Gauhati, India.
FILE - A drongo sits on a pole in a paddy field on the outskirts of Gauhati, India.
Reuters
If you believe honesty is the best policy, you would have a hard time convincing the forked-tailed drongo. This tricky African bird is the pathological liar of the animal kingdom.
 
Scientists described on Thursday how this medium-sized bird brazenly deceives other animals by mimicking alarm calls made by numerous bird species - and even meerkats - to warn of an approaching predator in a ruse to frighten them off and steal food they leave behind.
 
The researchers tracked 64 forked-tailed drongos over a span of nearly 850 hours in the Kalahari Desert in South Africa close to the Botswana border to unravel this unique behavior.
 
"They're rather demonic little black birds with red eyes, a hooked beak and a forked tail," said evolutionary biologist Tom Flower of the University of Cape Town in South Africa.
 
"They're also highly aggressive and are renowned for attacking eagles and hawks, for which they apparently have no fear," added Flower, whose study appears in the journal Science.
 
These birds, common in southern Africa, usually get meals the honest way, such as capturing insects in mid-air using their superb aerial skills.
 
But at other times, like on cold mornings when few insects are flitting around, the drongos turn to a life of crime.

False alarm
 
The drongos are able to mimic the sounds made by many different species that inhabit its desert environment, including birds such as pied babblers, glossy starlings, sociable weavers and pale chanting goshawks as well as mammals like meerkats.
 
The drongos carry out an elaborate con. They give their own genuine alarm call when they spot a predator approaching - essentially behaving as sentries - and other animals come to trust that this call signals real danger.
 
But they sometimes give this alarm call when no danger exists to fool other animals into fleeing and abandoning their food.
 
Then the drongos swoop down for a free lunch.
 
"All the animals in the Kalahari eavesdrop on each other's alarm calls, which provide invaluable information about potential predators. It's a bit of an information superhighway where all the animals speak each other's language," Flower said.
 
"Because drongos give reliable predator information some of the time, it maintains host responsiveness [of other animals] since they can never know if the drongo is lying or telling the truth," added Amanda Ridley, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Western Australia, another of the researchers.
 
The scientists noticed that sometimes the other animals "get wise" to the con and ignore repeated false alarm calls. But then the wily drongos simply grab another tool from their toolbox of trickery - they mimic the alarm calls made by other animals, once again conning them into fleeing and leaving their chow behind.
 
Flower observed drongos mimicking more than 50 calls.
 
When stealing food from other animals, drongos are able to eat larger prey than they normally would be able to capture on their own like scorpions, beetle larvae and even geckos.
 
"Crime pays," Flower said, noting that the stolen stuff accounted for about a quarter of the food eaten by the drongos.
 
"One could argue that the strategy of the drongo to steal food from others seems very dishonorable in human standards. But, yes, if it has found such a crafty way to catch food, which is usually much larger than the food items it catches itself, then we cannot help but admire this clever little bird's adaptiveness," Ridley added.
 
The researchers classify the drongo as "a kleptoparasite."
 
There are many examples of mimicry and deception in the animal kingdom. About 20 percent of song birds mimic the calls of other birds, Flower noted.
 
"However, drongos are the only ones to flexibly produce the specific signals that best deceive their different hosts and to maintain their deception racket by changing signal when the previous signal failed," Flower added

You May Like

Video China Investigates Powerful Former Security Chief

Analysts say move by President Xi is an effort to win more party support, take step toward economic reforms, removing those who would stand in way of change More

South Africa Land Reforms Still Contentious 20 Years Later

Activists argue that the pace of land reform is slow and biased; legal experts question how some proposed reforms would be implemented More

In Vietnam, Religious Freedoms Violated, UN Finds

Beliefs reportedly prompt heavy surveillance, intimidation and travel restrictions More

This forum has been closed.
Comments
     
There are no comments in this forum. Be first and add one

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Gazans in Shelled School Sought Shelteri
X
Scott Bobb
July 30, 2014 8:16 PM
Israel's air and ground assault against Hamas-led fighters in Gaza has forced many Palestinians to flee their homes, seeking safety. But safe places are hard to find, as VOA’s Scott Bobb reports from Jabaliya.
Video

Video Gazans in Shelled School Sought Shelter

Israel's air and ground assault against Hamas-led fighters in Gaza has forced many Palestinians to flee their homes, seeking safety. But safe places are hard to find, as VOA’s Scott Bobb reports from Jabaliya.
Video

Video Rapid Spread of Ebola in West Africa Prompts Global Alert

Across West Africa, health officials are struggling to keep up with what the World Health Organization describes as the worst ebola outbreak on record. The virus has killed hundreds of people this year. U.S. President Barack Obama and other world leaders are watching the developments closely as they weigh what actions, if any, are needed to help contain the disease.
Video

Video Michelle Obama: Young Africans Need to Embrace Women's Rights

U.S. first lady Michelle Obama urged some of Africa's best and brightest to advocate for women's rights in their home countries. As VOA's Pam Dockins explains, Obama spoke to some 500 participants of the Young African Leaders Initiative, a six-week U.S.-based training and development program.
Video

Video Immigrant Influx on Texas Border Heats Up Political Debate

Immigrants from Central America continue to cross the U.S.-Mexico border in south Texas, seeking asylum in the United States, as officials grapple with ways to deal with the problem and provide shelter for thousands of minors among the illegal border crossers. As VOA's Greg Flakus reports from Houston, the issue is complicated by internal U.S. politics and U.S. relations with the troubled nations that immigrants are fleeing.
Video

Video Study: Latino Students Most Segregated in California

Even though legal school segregation ended in the United States 60 years ago, one study finds segregation still occurs in the U.S. based on income and race. The University of California Los Angeles Civil Rights Project finds that students in California are more segregated by race than ever before, especially Latinos. Elizabeth Lee reports for VOA from Los Angeles.
Video

Video Vietnamese Staging Chinese Product Boycott After Oil Rig Spat

China recently pulled an oil rig from an area of the disputed South China Sea that Vietnam also claims. Despite the action, the incident has had a lingering effect on consumers in Vietnam. VOA's Reasey Poch reports from Hanoi on an effort to boycott Chinese products.
Video

Video A Summer Camp for All the World

VIDEO: During workshops and social gatherings, the Global Youth Village summer camp encourages young people to cooperate and embrace their differences, while learning to communicate with people from other countries. VOA's Deborah Block has more.
Video

Video From Cantankerous Warlock to Incorruptible Priest, 'Harry Potter' Actor Embraces Diverse Roles

He’s perhaps best known as Mad Eye Moody, the whimsical wizard in the Harry Potter franchise. But character actor Brendan Gleeson's resume includes dozens of films, and he embraces all the characters he inhabits with equal passion. In an interview with VOA’s Penelope Poulou, Gleeson discussed his new drama "Calvary" and his secret to success.

AppleAndroid