29 01 2014 Honeyguide 11

Quick! Think of a bird that shamelessly shirks its parental responsibility. Did the cuckoo come to mind? Well, let me introduce you to a new contender you might not be familiar with. In South Africa, you'll find another family of birds that shun the task of parenting: the honeyguides.

There are four species in the country and they're all fairly secretive birds, heard more often than they are seen. Found in forests and thick clumps of trees, the birds have distinctive white outer tail feathers and an easy-to-spot 'dipping' flight. When breeding season arrives, nest-building is the last thing on their agenda. Instead, the scheming avian couple plots and strategises on how to sneak an egg inside the nest of the (very wary and protective) barbet, a colourful bird species found in the African tropics. Watching all of this scheming drama unfold is one of nature’s little treats, even though it can be a lengthy process (and your heart does go out the poor barbet, who's doing his very best to protect his own brood).

29 01 2014 Honeyguide 13
Instead of feathering a nest, the honeyguides are on the lookout for an unsuspecting barbet to con.

Once the honeyguides have set their sights on a traget, they can roll out "Operation Egg Drop". The male honeyguide makes himself very visible and harasses the barbet until the poor bird is almost out of its mind with frustration, chasing the honeyguide bully to and fro. Inevitably, the barbet finds itself too far away from the nest for just a few minutes as it screams its way after its nemesis ... and that's just the opening the female honeyguide needs. She's been sitting, quietly hidden, and she times her trespassing crime perfectly. She lays a single egg amongst the barbet's clutch, and leaves. Mission accomplished.

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While the honeyguide male harasses the target, the female waits for that golden egg-laying opportunity.

The honeyguide egg hatches slightly ahead of the host's young (the crafty honeyguide mother ensures her progeny hatches first by internally incubating her egg for an extra day before laying it). As for the barbets, a very grim fate awaits when they finally do emerge: the young honeyguide will use its sharp bill hook (found at the tip of its beak) to kill its "siblings". And there you have it: trespassing, fraud and finally murder are what's required in order for the honeyguide chick to be cared for by its surrogate parents as a spoilt only child.