How did the guiding behavior develop?                  

                                                                                       (Image: Walter A. Weber)

There is debate over whether or not honeyguides developed this behavior in response to early humans, or the honey badger, the "ratel". While African tribes have long told of the mutually beneficial cooperation between the honeyguide and the ratel, this has never been observed by biologists, although most seem to accept it as fact. The guiding of humans by the birds, however, has. Either way, it's assumed that early on a honeyguide observed a human (or ratel) opening a hive, and consequently was able to partake of the scraps left behind. This would have encouraged the bird to follow the other animal in order if it could find even more food.

Since a honeyguide is familiar with the locations of all the hives in its territory, it would seem logical for the bird to have started to try to lead the animal to hives that the honeyguide had no access to. This doesn't require any guiding in the early stages, simply drawing the attention of the animal to the hive by circling or making loud noises. After this happened several times, the animal may come to realize that the honeyguide is a reliable source of information for food, and would have been willing to follow the bird greater distances in pursuit of hives.

The guiding behavior was probably originally established through learning and habituation in one specific bird, which spread - either through imitation or communication - to its peers and progeny. However, it is unknown how this behavior became instinctive, as it is thought to be because honeyguides are parasitic breeders. They lay their eggs in the nests of other birds, so the nestlings would not have an opportunity to learn the behavior from the parents. Consequently, because the host parents do not eat wax, the honeyguide chicks do not learn to eat it in their youth. However, all adult honeyguides instinctly seek out honeycombs in order to ingest the wax and larvae available there.

The behavior seems to be unique to a certain population, however - those honeyguides in the same area as other honey-gathering organisms. Honeyguides in areas where humans no longer need to search for bee colonies do not display this behavior - either because they lost it, or simply never learned to do it.