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Clever bird mimics multiple species to score meals

Fork-tailed drongo perched.
[Image courtesy of Tom Flower]

Anyone who knows the story of "The Boy Who Cried Wolf" knows that people eventually stop listening to liars. The same is true in nature: Animals will eventually stop paying attention to others that give false alarms, or those that cry out in warning even when there is no danger. Now, however, a new study in Science shows that one particular African bird is able to trick other species again and again by mimicking the sounds of multiple species.

These clever birds, known as forked tailed drongos, will create false alarms, telling nearby creatures that it sees a predator even when it doesn't. If the other animals happen to run off and leave their food behind, then the drongos swoop in and steal their meal.

Tom Flowers and colleagues wanted to know how the drongos were able to keep stealing meals like that over and over. They wondered why the other species didn't eventually realize that the drongos were lying. So, they watched 64 wild drongos in the Kalahari Desert as the birds tried to steal food from other species 688 different times.

They discovered that individual drongos know anywhere from 9 to 32 different warning calls of other species, and that they use combinations of those cries to trick their targets. Drongos that used the alarm calls of different species were more likely to score a meal, first of all, and also more likely to trick their targets multiple times, according to the researchers. The fact that these drongos can mimic the cries of multiple species means that their neighbors never get used to the drongos' trickery, they say.