Triumph of a Bird Brain

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Young as a novice research assistant, trying to weigh a meerkat. Photo by Sam Lostrom.

By Young Ha Suh

“Yum yum!”

The words echoed through the cold air of the Kalahari Desert. It was a typical morning at my field site where I was a new field assistant collecting data on a social mongoose species, the meerkat (Suricata suricatta). At the field site, we train meerkats to weigh themselves with the magic words, “yum yum” and tiny treats of boiled egg and water (positive association with the words) when they hop into the scale. The weight data is a core asset of the project, and it is our main job as research assistants to obtain that data. I had to remind myself to sound as cheerful and enticing as possible while saying the words.

“Yum YUM!!!”

I burst out. It had already been 12 minutes since I started running around with a weighing scale in one hand, holding a note book with the same arm, and waving a bag of mushed boiled eggs and a hamster water bottle with another. I must have looked insane. My target meerkat – Tigi, who belonged to the Ewok clan – probably thought the same as he looked at me briefly before scurrying off into the distance. Timing is critical in weight data because we want to know how much the animals weighed before they started foraging. The cutoff was 15 minutes after they leave the burrow to start their daily foraging, and by then I still needed to weigh 17 more meerkats! Despite my best efforts of shoving the water bottle and egg bits in their faces, the rest of Ewoks ignored me. The dominant female, even pushed away my hand. Dejected, I decided to spend the rest of my time on Tigi, who at least glanced over occasionally.

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A meerkat on a scale. Photo by Young Ha Suh.

I promise I was not a bad field assistant. It was mid-winter when I first arrived. This is a tricky time for us research assistants because the meerkats do not care for our food and water offerings. Meerkats are primarily insectivores that dig to find food (in which they get their water from). In winter, they find enough food underground so they are not as interested in getting weighed for treats. So here I was, chasing after one meerkat to the next, desperately begging with pleas of “yum yum” while carrying all the tools and sitting up and down repeatedly to set the scale in front of each one. After multiple efforts, I finally got Tigi to drink out of the water bottle and nibble on some egg yolk. Suppressing all my excitement and joy, I slowly moved the water bottle towards the scale. Tigi followed dutifully, and I managed to get his two paws into the weight box of the scale. He was so close! Just as he was about to put a hind foot on the scale, a sharp call sent him and the rest of Ewok into burrows.

I was devastated. I looked around to find the cause of this commotion: a fork-tailed drongo (Dicrurus adsimilis). Drongos are small, insect-eating birds that are often seen following other animals. When with meerkats, drongos can act as sentries and produce an alarm call when they see a predator approaching. Meerkats respond to these alarm calls and run away. But drongos are not just altruistic; they can be cunning thieves. How? These smart birds can produce a false alarm, in the absence of danger, when they see a meerkat dig up a prey item. As the meerkat drops its meal in a scurry of panic and fear, the drongo swiftly retrieves the fallen food item. In the winter when flying insects are scarce, drongos rely heavily on meerkats for their food intake. While I marveled at the ingenuity of this avian thief, I had to chase it away for data. I yelled and shouted at the bird, waving my arms, and it flew away from sight. As the meerkats emerged from the burrows one by one, I cautiously kneeled down and started enticing them again with yum yums.

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A fork-tailed drongo. Those devious red eyes say it all. Photo by Young Ha Suh.

Strink-strink!” The drongo’s sharp, metallic call reverberated, once again sending all the meerkats into a mad dash. It was a couple of meters away from the scale, sitting on a bush, eyes fixated on the crumbled egg bits in my hand. I tried shooing it away, but it flew to a nearby branch and watched me. As the meerkats emerged, I resumed weighing while keeping a wary eye on the thief. After the third time, Tigi had all four feet on the scale. I carefully adjusted his tail so it would not be touching the ground and I looked over to see the reading. “Five hundred forty…” Before I could finish, “Strink-strink!” Tigi bolted out of the weight box, milliseconds before I had a chance to read it.

Fuming with frustration, I looked up. This time, the bird was hovering just inches away from my face, looking at my face then at the egg crumbs. I was bewildered by the audacity of this wild bird and its tenacity to get any form of protein in its diet. I almost touched it as it flew away to a nearby branch. I tried again for another 15 minutes, and had to give up because of the drongos persistence and the Ewok clan’s stupidity gullibility to fall for the false alarm every single time – most meerkats learn after a couple of false alarms, just like in ‘the boy who cried wolf’. It was a battle of determination between me and the drongo, and the wits between meerkat and drongo; and the drongo was the ultimate winner that day.

Here is a BBC video of a drongo-meerkat interaction:


Young Ha Suh is a PhD student at Cornell University. She is interested in the behavioral ecology of Florida Scrub-Jays, especially the socio-environmental factors that influence individual dispersal and subsequent fitness. She also has her share of ostrich horror stories, one of which involving a mate-display and exchange of chest-bumps. For more information on her research, visit: younghasuh.wordpress.com

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