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Alex’s Bird Chirp No. 12 – Honeyguides and Honeybirds

Hi everyone!! Although we have had no new entries to our bird list, it is very pleasing to see the great interest around birding in the reserve. This is mainly from our growing Eswatini guests over the extended lock-down period. Hopefully the rest of us will be able to enjoy the great birding experience once lock-down is over. If you have any questions or sharing around birds in our reserve you can email me at birding@royaljozini.com. Please keep in mind that I am no expert, but will do my best to get the answers from the right people.

Despite Honeyguides’ drab appearance they are most probably the most fascinating group of birds in Africa. Did you know that Honeyguides do not eat actual honey as one would expect, but rather beeswax. They have a phenomenal ability to detect beeswax even a dry honeycomb.

There are four species of Honeyguides in the Southern Africa region of which three species occur in our reserve. The Lesser Honeyguide, the Greater Honeyguide and the Scaly-throated Honeyguide pictured here below. They are the so called “indicator” birds, which over time has led people and possibly animals to a bee-hive. The Greater Honeyguide has evolved to such an extent that it will lead people to bee-hives through its chattering call and then quietly wait until the hives are smoked-out and some honey comb left for it to eat.

The Scaly-throated Honeyguide is easily identified by its blackish streaks and light scaling on its breast. Its call is a fast ascending frog-like purring trill uttered monotously for long periods. This is a mostly un-common specie which can easily be overlooked. Other than beeswax they will also feed on honeybees and other insects. With established beehives at lodges 365 and 84 both the Scaly-throated and the Greater honeyguides are regular visitors in these areas. The lesser Honeyguide however has not yet been recorded in the reserve.

Honeyguides are also brood parasites, meaning that they will lay their one egg in others birds’ nests (mostly barbets and other hole nesting species – RJPGR specie discussion no 9).

The Greater Honeyguide has a distinct pink bill with a white cheeck and black throat and is similar in size to the scaly-throated Honeyguide. Juveniles have yellowish underparts and a darker bill as can be seen below.

The Greater Honeyguide “Indicator indicator” is famous for its extraordinary co-operative relationship with humans but less famous for its ruthlessly destructive relationship with other birds (mainly host bird) hence also called the “Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde”of birds. Once their chick is hatched in the host birds nest, the newly hatched Greater honeyguide armed with its sharp hooked bill will then maul the host chicks to the extent that they then die from their wounds. The greater Honeyguide is well known for its call which is a sustained, loud Vic-tor,Vic-tor ussually given from its traditional song tree.

The lesser Honeyguide is smaller (15cm) than the other two species and more dull coloured, with a greyish head and light black malar stripe which could also be absent. Its call is a monotounous dry klink, klink, klink.. The picture below was sourced from the intranet, hopefully we will be able to take
one in the reserve as well.

Honeybirds on the other hand is smaller (12cm) than honeyguides and also feed on mainly scale insects. Honeyguides have the genus Indicator, implying they can lead people or other animals to honey whereas Honeybirds have the genus prodotiscus roughly translated as betrayer, possibly implying that they do not guide people or animals to honey.

The Brown-backed Honeybird should be seen in our reserve, however being very similar to a Dusky Flycatcher with its greyish brown colour this bird specie has not been recorded in the reserve.