This one kills me.
Despite my daily buffet of crazy futurism, it’s a new story about an ancient animal-human relationship that has my attention.
The Yao honey hunters of Mozambique have a special friend—a wild bird called the Greater Honeyguide. These two species have carried on a mutualistic relationship that may span thousands of years.
When the honey hunters want to go in search of hives, they make a special trilling call. The Honeyguide appears, screeching, and leads them to hives that are often too high up in trees to be visible from the ground. After the human takes down the nest and harvests the honey, the bird gets what it wants—the beeswax.
How amazing is that? Everything about this bird impresses me. Its scientific name is Indicator Indicator. I’m not kidding.
The bird knows how to indicate.
What little I knew of mutualism before this was mostly about body-to-body feeding. Birds that eat bugs off the backs of rhinos. Sharks and remoras. Humans and gut bacteria.
But the level of social connection required for the human—Honeyguide relationship is astonishing. What about dogs hunting with humans, you ask? Ha! Dogs are raised and trained for that.
The Honeyguide is completely wild. It does not live among humans. No one trains it to do this, except perhaps its own kind.
And get this—Honeyguide parents don’t even raise their own chicks. They are brood parasites, meaning they lay their eggs in other birds’ nests and have them do the work.
This makes them less cute. It can’t all be cat pictures, you guys.
At this point, I would normally make a joke about wanting my own mutualism relationship. With a donut-seeking bird.
But mutualism is based on need, and I don’t need birds to find donuts for me. I could close my eyes, throw a rock, and hit a place that sells donuts.
I could probably order a single donut from Amazon and have it at my doorstep, wrapped in wax paper and chilled by dry ice, by the end of the day.
And what need would I provide for the bird? It would have to be something the bird could only get from me, and I don’t know what that would be. They find their own food.
A bird that lives in my apartment and eats roaches? No, because I can’t provide roaches in any greater quantity than a bird can get outside, except maybe during hard rains.
How about a bird that alerts me to good dinner specials in exchange for a shared meal? No, social media does that. There is too much on-demand information in my life for a partnership based on information.
Most mutualistic relationships aren’t information-based anyway. That’s why the Great Honeyguide is so fascinating.
So what else? I have minimal body parasites, so I don’t have those to offer up.
Do I have a mutualistic relationship with Bullet the Asthmatic Panther? Maybe. I provide food and shelter in exchange for companionship, if companionship counts.
But I’m not even sure the food and shelter count as a “provided need” because I don’t give Bullet a choice. He isn’t allowed to leave in search of better quality food or more spacious living arrangements. He’s more like a well-regarded prisoner than a symbiotic partner.
So I probably can’t put “managed a mutualistic relationship with wild species for improved workflow” on my resume. That’s ok.
I will live vicariously through Indicator Indicator and its quest for honeycomb. It’s nice to take a break from neural dust and adorable artificial intelligence. We put human brains in killer robot bodies now (probably), and I’m just bird-watching.
Have you ever engaged in mutualism? I’m going to be surprised if you say yes. It shouldn’t be possible, but I have to ask.
Given the nature of this blog, I’m always hoping a reader has done the improbable and will let me in on the ground floor.