60-Second Science

Thieving Bird Apes Its Victims

The fork-tailed drongo can mimic the alarm calls of dozens of other species of animals, including nonbirds, to drive them off and steal their food. Cynthia Graber reports


[Music plays] Neil Young? No, that’s Jimmy Fallon imitating Neil Young. Doing impressions can be a valuable skill. In fact, a bird called the fork-tailed drongo makes a good living at it, in its home in Africa’s Kalahari Desert. The drongo can mimic the alarm calls of another bird. When that bird flees the imagined danger, the drongo swoops in to take any food left behind.

An animal mimicking another animal is not rare. And targets can grow wise to the trick. The drongo’s real talent is that it can do the warning calls of multiple species. [Music plays] Like how Jimmy Fallon can also do Van Morrison.

Researchers followed 64 wild drongos for nearly 850 hours. Drongos do sound accurate alarms in response to actual predators. But when they spot a tempting meal in another bird’s possession, they send out a false alarm. Here’s one mimicking a pied babbler. [Drongo call]

Another a glossy starling’s alarm. [Drongo call]

And here’s a drongo mimicking a meerkat alarm. [Drongo call]

The researchers saw almost 700 drongo attempts to steal food. They estimate that any one drongo might know up to 32 different species’ alarms. And stolen food accounted for nearly a quarter of their daily intake. The study is in the journal Science. [Tom P. Flower, Matthew Gribble and Amanda R. Ridley, Deception by Flexible Alarm Mimicry in an African Bird]

Fool birds once? Shame on them. Fool birds multiple times? Success for the fork-tailed drongo.

—Cynthia Graber

[The above text is a transcript of this podcast.]

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