Birds of the genus Indicator are small, nondescript birds ranging in brown and gray shades. Three of the species are from subsaharan Africa, with one species, the Malay Honeyguide in southeast Asia and nearby islands.
The genus is named for the behavior of the Greater Honeyguide, Indicator indicator, which is known to lead humans. toward active or abandoned bees nests. The birds wait while the human rips open the nest and then eat beeswax and larvae. Often the humans will leave honeycomb exposed specifically for the birds.
However, the widely circulated association of Greater Honeyguides with honeybadgers appears to be completely unsupported by any evidence.
All species eat beeswax and larvae, and they have all been reported as able to open bees nests themselves. They have thick skin and some adaptations of their nostrils, which apparently protect the birds from bee defensive attacks.
Despite the name of honeyguide, however, only the one species has been documented guiding other animals to nests. The Scaly-throated Honeyguide, Indicator variegatus has been anecdotally linked to the behavior.
At open bees nests several honeyguides of the same or multiple species may arrive and immature birds are apparently dominant over mature birds at these feeding spots. Immature Greater Honeyguides are dominant over all other honeyguides.
Apparently the birds have digestive enzymes that help them to break down the wax. Some older sources speculate that there may be bacteria in their gut that breaks down the wax, but that appears not to be the case.
All species of the family Indicatoridae are nest parasites. The Indicator honeyguides parasitize hole-nesters such as woodpeckers and barbets. Young honeyguides are recognized by their nest hosts as soon as they fledge, and driven from the are of the nest. Perhaps surprisingly, adult honeyguides will defend the nest host’s nesting area.
Outside of breeding pairs, honeyguides are solitary and intolerant of others and generally defend a feeding territory.
- Dean, W. R. J., Siegried, W. R. and I. A. W. MacDonald. 1990. The Fallacy, Fact, and Fate of Guiding Behavior in the Greater Honeyguide. Conservation Biology, 4:1, 99-101
- Downs CT, van Dyk RJ, Iji P. 2002. Wax digestion by the lesser honeyguide Indicator minor. Comp Biochem Physiol A Mol Integr Physiol. Sep;133(1):125-34. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/12160878”>abstract online)
- Perrins, C. (ed). 2003. Firefly Encyclopedia of Birds. Firefly Books. ISBN: 1552977773
- Stuart, C. & T. 1999. Birds of Africa from Seabirds to Seed-eaters. MIT Press. ISBN: 026219439