False Alarms: How the Fork-Tailed Drongo Lies its Way into a Free Meal
Some animals rely on brute force to win a meal, and others rely on clever traps, but a little African bird is getting attention for its own sly hunting strategy: pathologically lying.
The forked-tailed drongo acts as a sentinel in its desert environment, giving a genuine alarm call when it spots an approaching predator. Other animals grow to trust the bird's alarm as a sign of predators. But this behavior is all part of an elaborate ruse.
With its hooked beak and aggressive temperament, the drongo is well equipped to earn its meals the traditional way, but when prey is not abundant the birds get deceptive. On occasion, the drongo will give off a fake warning call to fool animals into fleeing and abandoning their food.
The birds are also master con artists, capable of imitating the sounds made by the many different species that shares its desert habitat with, so it can run its ruse from a variety of angles, faking the alarm calls of other birds and even meerkats.
Scientists already knew that the drongo is a deceitful bird, but their latest research on the creature reveals the extent of its deception.
The latest study of the forked-tailed drongo took place in the Kalahari Desert in South Africa, near the Botswana border. There, researchers from University of Cape Town in South Africa and University of Western Australia spent nearly 850 hours documenting the forked-tailed drongo. They meticulously observed 64 individuals, recording their calls and behaviors.
All told, about 700 attempted food robberies were recorded.
The thorough study of the bird revealed that some individuals are capable of replicating the alarm calls of more than 30 individuals.
To keep the unsuspecting victims from catching on, the drongo plays out an elaborate game of deception, sometimes blurting out legitimate alarm calls and sometimes giving fake ones, and it does this with one of its six own unique calls or the calls of one of the many other species it can imitate.
The researchers found that the drongo obtains about 20 percent of its meals through tricking other animals into abandoning their food.
The research, led by evolutionary biologist Tom Flower, is published in the journal Science.