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Sep 23

Animal Relationships: Drongo and Babblers

Meet the gangsters of the bird world – the drongo mafia. What is a drongo, you say? Well, it’s a small black fork-tailed bird from Africa, and whilst it doesn’t sound like much, it’s actually quite a sneaky little customer. That’s one in the picture underneath.

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Photo: Hans Stieglitz

The drongos have a relationship with another little bird, this time a black and white one called the pied babbler (see picture below), which feeds on the African grasslands in large numbers. When they are foraging, however, they cannot effectively keep an eye out for danger and that’s where the drongos come in handy – they perch in the trees above and follow the babbler groups between foraging sites, giving alarm calls whenever danger is spotted. With the drongos present, the babblers invest less time in sentinel duty and much more time looking for food.

A happy, healthy partnership? Hardly. The drongos require payment for their services and since the babblers don’t give anything in return that the drongos want, the drongos just take it. They do this by being rather untruthful with their alarm calls. If the drongos are hungry and want some of the food that the babblers are uncovering, they give false calls even if there are no predators present. Unwilling to risk it, the babblers scatter, giving the drongos ample time to fly down and steal some of their food.

The babblers put up with this because it is the price they must pay for protection. And, as with any case where the protectors are taking advantage of their position, the babblers do not always trust their so-called helpers entirely. They are much more responsive to alarm calls from other babblers in their flock than from the drongos, and very large flocks of babblers, which have enough group members to participate in sentinel duties, even chase away drongos to avoid the cost of having their food stolen.

Animals lie. It’s a fact. In the short term, it’s a great way to get by and take advantage of others. Eventually, though, those lies catch up to them, and as the babblers become wiser to the drongo’s antics, they may have to find another species of bird to victimise in the future. Or maybe even some unsuspecting meerkats. But that’s another story…

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