Drongos: Maestros of Mimicry

Source: scientias.nl, photo DJ Midgley
Drongos are skilful imitators of other birds and meerkats. By impersonating alarm calls, they seize the opportunity to steal meerkats' prey. The drongos keep fooling the meerkats by varying the mimicked alarm calls.
Cambridge University (UK) researchers were studying meerkats in the Kalahari desert of South Africa when they noticed the drongo behaviour. Drongos, songbirds found in Africa and elsewhere, are often black or dark grey, sometimes with a metallic shine.

Drongos are prevalent where there are meerkats. If the bird sees a predator it makes an alarm call, and the meerkat reacts by ducking into a hole. But when a meerkat has caught interesting prey such as a gecko, larvae or a scorpion, the drongo also makes an alarm call as if there were a predator nearby. The meerkat then bolts for his hole and the drongo takes the food.

Having noticed this, the researchers focused on the drongos. One hundred drongos were studied; the scientists discovered that they mimicked the alarm calls of several animal species. The assumption is that the birds vary their calls in order to ensure that their trick remains effective. This is just like the fable in which the boy cries wolf so often that others stop paying attention, even when there really is a wolf. By imitating a variety of alarm calls, drongos keep tricking the meerkats.

The study’s results were reported in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B.
Licence photo: Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0