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

Myanmar Fighting Poses Dilemma for China

To gain some insight into conflict, VOA’s Steve Herman spoke with Min Zaw Oo, director of ceasefire negotiation and implementation at Myanmar Peace Center More

Australia Concerned Over Islamic State 'Brides'

Canberra believes there are between 30 and 40 Australian women who have taken part in terror attacks or are supporting the Islamic State terror network More

Recreational Marijuana Use Now Legal in Washington, DC

Law allows adults 21 and over to privately possess and smoke 0.05 kilogram of pot, and to grow small amounts of the plant 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.
US Supreme Court Hears Hijab Discrimination Casei
X
Katherine Gypson
February 25, 2015 11:30 PM
The U.S. Supreme Court has heard opening arguments in a workplace religious discrimination case that examines whether a clothing store can refuse to hire a young woman for wearing the headscarf she says is a symbol of her Muslim faith. Katherine Gypson reports from the Supreme Court.
Video

Video US Supreme Court Hears Hijab Discrimination Case

The U.S. Supreme Court has heard opening arguments in a workplace religious discrimination case that examines whether a clothing store can refuse to hire a young woman for wearing the headscarf she says is a symbol of her Muslim faith. Katherine Gypson reports from the Supreme Court.
Video

Video Falling Gas Prices Hurt Nascent Illinois Hydraulic Fracturing Industry

Falling oil prices are helping consumers purchase cheaper petroleum at the pump. But that’s made hydraulic fracturing or “fracking” less economically viable for the companies in the United States invested in the process. VOA’s Kane Farabaugh reports on one Midwestern town that was hoping to change its fortunes by cashing in on the next big U.S. oil boom.
Video

Video Fighting in Sudan's South Kordofan Fuels Mass Displacement

Heavy fighting in Sudan's South Kordofan state is causing hundreds of thousands to flee into uncertain conditions. Local aid organizations estimate as many as 400,000 civilians have been internally displaced since the conflict began more than three years ago, while another 250,000 have fled across the border to refugee camps in South Sudan. VOA's Adam Bailes reports.
Video

Video Lao Dam Project Runs Into Opposition

A Lao dam project on a section of the Mekong River is drawing opposition from local fishermen, international environmental groups and neighboring countries. VOA's Say Mony visited the region to investigate the concerns. Colin Lovett narrates.
Video

Video A Filmmaker Discovers Her Biracial Identity in "Little White Lie

Lacey Schwartz grew up in an upper middle-class Jewish family, in a town in upstate New York where almost everyone she knew was white. She assumed that she was, as well. Her recent documentary, Little White Lie, tells the story of how she uncovered the secret of her true racial background. VOA’s Carolyn Weaver has more on the film.
Video

Video Deep Under Antarctic Ice Sheet, Life!

With the end of summer in the Southern hemisphere, the Antarctic research season is over. Scientists from Northern Illinois University are back in their laboratory after a 3-month expedition on the Ross Ice Shelf, the world’s largest floating ice sheet. As VOA’s Rosanne Skirble reports, they hope to find clues to explain the dynamics of the rapidly melting ice and its impact on sea level rise.
Video

Video US-Cuba Normalization Talks Resume Friday

Negotiations aimed at normalizing diplomatic relations between the U.S. and Cuba resume Friday. On the table: lifting a half-century trade embargo and easing banking and travel restrictions. There's opposition in Congress, but some analysts say there may be sufficient political and economic incentives in both nations for a potential breakthrough this year. VOA's Mil Arcega reports.
Video

Video Pakistan's Deadline For SIM Registration Has Cellphone Users Scrambling

Pakistani cell phone users have until midnight Thursday to register their SIM cards, or their service will be cut off. While some privacy experts worry about government intrusion, many Pakistanis are just worried about keeping their phone lines open. VOA Deewa reporter Arshad Muhmand has more from Peshawar.
Video

Video Myanmar Warns Factory Workers to End Strikes

Outside Myanmar's main city Yangon, thousands of workers walked off their jobs earlier this month demanding a doubling of their wages, pay raises after a year and input from labor unions on industrial regulations. Since Friday, the standoff has grown more tense as police moved in to disrupt the sit-ins, resulting in clashes that injured people from both sides. VOA correspondent Steve Herman visited industrial zones which have become a focus of Myanmar's fledgling workers rights movement.
Video

Video Oscar Winners Do More Than Thank the Academy

The Academy Awards presentation is Hollywood’s night to reward the best movies from the previous year. It’s typically a lot of glitter, a lot of thank you’s, a lot of speeches. But many of this year’s speeches carried messages beyond the thank you's. VOA’s Carolyn Presutti takes a look.

All About America

Circumventing Censorship

An Internet Primer for Healthy Web Habits

As surveillance and censoring technologies advance, so, too, do new tools for your computer or mobile device that help protect your privacy and break through Internet censorship.
More