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.
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

Taiwan President Sounds Warning on Future of China Ties

Current Taiwan government has eased once dangerously tough relations with Beijing since 2008, but next year’s presidential election could change that course More

US Presidential Candidates Woo Hispanic Voters

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump and Democrat Hillary Clinton reached out to Hispanic voters this past week in a bid to boost their voter support More

Video In 'He Named Me Malala,' Guggenheim Finds Normal in Extraordinary

Documentary is a close-up and personal view of young woman who has become of global symbol of courage and inspiration More

This forum has been closed.
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.
House Republicans in Chaos as Speaker Favorite Withdrawsi
Jim Malone
October 09, 2015 12:32 AM
The Republican widely expected to become the next speaker of the House of Representatives shocked his colleagues Thursday by announcing he was withdrawing his candidacy. The decision by Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy means the race to succeed retiring Speaker John Boehner is now wide open. VOA National Correspondent Jim Malone reports.

Video House Republicans in Chaos as Speaker Favorite Withdraws

The Republican widely expected to become the next speaker of the House of Representatives shocked his colleagues Thursday by announcing he was withdrawing his candidacy. The decision by Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy means the race to succeed retiring Speaker John Boehner is now wide open. VOA National Correspondent Jim Malone reports.

Video German, US Officials Investigate Volkswagen

German officials have taken steps to restore some of the reputation their car industry has lost after a recent Volkswagen diesel emissions scandal. Authorities have searched Volkswagen headquarters and other locations in an effort to identify the culprits in the creation of software that helps cheat on emission tests. Meanwhile, a group of lawmakers in Washington held a hearing to get to the bottom of the cheating strategy that was first discovered in the United States. Zlatica Hoke reports.

Video Why Are Gun Laws So Hard for Congress to Tackle?

Since taking office, President Barack Obama has spoken out or issued statements about 15 mass shootings. The most recent shooting, in which 10 people were killed at a community college, sparked outrage over the nation's gun laws. But changing those laws isn't as easy as many think. VOA's Carolyn Presutti reports.

Video Hungary Criticized for Handling of Refugees

Amnesty International has accused Hungary of breaking multiple international and European human rights laws in its handling of the refugee crisis. As Henry Ridgwell reports, thousands of migrants and refugees continue to travel through the Balkans to Hungary every day.

Video Iraqi-Kurdish Teachers Vow to Continue Protest

Sixteen people were injured when police used tear gas and rubber bullets to disperse teachers and other public employees who took to the streets in Iraq’s Kurdish north, demanding their salaries from the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG). VOA’s Dilshad Anwar, in Sulaimaniya, caught up with protesting teachers who say they have not been paid for three months. Parke Brewer narrates his report.

Video Syrian Village Community Faces Double Displacement in Lebanon

Driven by war from their village in southwestern Syria, a group of families found shelter in Lebanon, resettling en masse in a half-built university to form one of the biggest settlements of its kind in Lebanon. Three years later, however, they now face being kicked out and dispersed in a country where finding shelter as a refugee can be especially tough. John Owens has more for VOA from the city of Saida, also known as Sidon.

Video Bat Colony: Unusual Tourist Attraction in Texas

The action hero Batman might be everyone’s favorite but real bats hardly get that kind of adoration. Put more than a million of these creatures of the night together and it only evokes images of horror. Sarah Zaman visited the largest urban bat colony in North America to see just how well bat and human get along with each other.

Video Device Shows Promise of Stopping Motion Sickness

It’s a sickening feeling — the dizziness, nausea and vomiting that comes with motion sickness. But a device now being developed could stop motion sickness by suppressing certain signals in the brain. VOA’s Deborah Block reports.

Video Making a Mint

While apples, corn, and cranberries top the list of fall produce in the US, it’s also the time to harvest gum, candy, and toothpaste—or at least the oil that makes them minty fresh. Erika Celeste reports from South Bend, Indiana on the mint harvest.

Video Activists Decry Lagos Slum Demolition

Acting on a court order, authorities in Nigeria demolished a slum last month in the commercial capital, Lagos. But human rights activists say the order was illegal, and the community was razed to make way for a government housing project. Chris Stein has more from Lagos.

Video TPP Agreed, But Faces Stiff Opposition

President Barack Obama promoted the Trans-Pacific Partnership on Tuesday, one day after 12 Pacific Rim nations reached the free trade deal in Atlanta. The controversial pact that would involve about 40 percent of global trade still needs approval by lawmakers in respective countries. Zlatica Hoke reports Obama is facing strong opposition to the deal, including from members of his own party.

Video Ukranian Artist Portrays Putin in an Unusual Way

As Russian President Vladimir Putin was addressing the United Nations in New York last month, he was also being featured in an art exhibition in Washington. It’s not a flattering exhibit. It’s done by a Ukrainian artist in a unique medium. And its creator says it’s not only a work of art - it’s a political statement. VOA’s Tetiana Kharchenko has more.

VOA Blogs