Friday, 5 November 2010

The bird that cries "Hawk!"

Ed Yong reports on Not Exactly Rocket Science about some anecdotal evidence that is no longer anecdotal.  A year or so ago he heard about a Seth Efrican bird called a fork-tailed drongo mimicing other animals' alarm calls and stealing their food when they panicked and ran away.

“Drongos are notorious thieves and mimics. In South Africa, I spent a morning with a meerkat researcher, following live meerkats. He said that he had anecdotal evidence that the fork-tailed drongo would sometimes mimic the predator alarm calls of meerkats while they were foraging and then swoop down to nick their unearthed morsels.”
Now a Cambridge PhD student, Tom Flower, has demonstrated that it really is true.

The drongos use a combination of alarms. Some are their own, but others are imitations of the warning calls of glossy starlings, crowned plovers and pied babblers. Foraging animals often form watchful alliances, where different species recognise and listen out for each others’ alarms. If one spots danger, the entire alliance runs for cover.
So the drongo can give a glossy starling alarm call and the meerkats scurry for cover, leaving the bird to collect the food.  Neato!

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