For starlings and meerkats in the Kalahari Desert, the fork-tailed drongo, a songbird with glossy black feathers and garnet-red eyes, is like the neighborhood dog: a trustworthy pal that’s always on the alert and ready to warn you about dangerous predators.
Except when it’s lying. Because sometimes drongos, which are about the size of a scrub jay, make false alarm calls, causing their listeners to drop whatever juicy morsels they were dining on and flee the scene.
Meanwhile the deceptive birds have swooped in and made off with their victim’s meal.
Indeed drongos are notorious among wildlife observers for their thieving ways. But sometimes the birds call “hawk” too often, and like the boy in Aesop’s fables who cried “wolf” one too many times, they discover that no one’s paying attention.
Now researchers report in Science that when that happens, the clever birds deploy another trick: They imitate their victim’s alarm call or that of another species.
The discovery reveals that drongos are paying surprisingly close attention to their target’s responses to their calls—perhaps even employing a type of sophisticated cognition that researchers usually reserve for humans only.
“It’s a really cool study,” says John Marzluff, a wildlife biologist at the University of Washington in Seattle. “It’s the most sophisticated example of vocal deception, outside of my own species, that I’ve ever seen.”
To study the drongos’ alarm calls, Tom Flower, an evolutionary biologist at South Africa’s University of Cape Town, has habituated and banded about 200 of the birds in the Kuruman River Reserve in the Kalahari Desert.
(It’s the same area occupied by the meerkats in the television series Meerkat Manor.)