Indicator indicatorgreater honeyguide

Geographic Range

Indicator indicator, also known as greater honeyguides, is widely distributed throughout sub-Saharan Africa. Their range excludes a small, south-western portion of Africa consisting of Namibia, Botswana, and part of South Africa. Greater honeyguides are the most widely-distributed species of all the known honeyguides. ("Family Indicatoridae (Honeyguides)", 2002; Berruit, et al., 1995; Johnsgard, 1997)


Greater honeyguides favor large open areas including savanna, shrubland, forest edge, riverside or orchard habitats. Greater honeyguides usually live in areas that are rich in food resources (termite, bee, and other insect nests) and avian host species whose nests they parasitize. Habitats range in elevation from sea level to nearly 3000 meters above sea level but this species is usually found under 2000 meters. ("Family Indicatoridae (Honeyguides)", 2002; Johnsgard, 1997)

  • Range elevation
    3000 (high) m
    9842.52 (high) ft
  • Average elevation
    below 2000 m

Physical Description

Greater honeyguides are the largest bird of the Indicatoridae family and are usually around 20 centimeters in body length. Males are on average 48.9 grams and females average 46.8 grams. Adult males have pink bills, black throats, a pale gray ear patch, and a nearly white breast. Males have a small patch of golden feathers fringing the wing coverts which are easily visible during flight. Females are uniformly grayish brown and white underparts similar to their male counterparts, but are more brown and lacking throat and cheek patches. Juveniles have a remarkably different appearance than either parent with a distinctive yellow-gold, taupe and olive-brown plumage.

This bird is readily-distinguishable from other honeyguides by its mostly white rump and tail coverts edged with white, with brown shaft streaks. Adult plumage takes about 8 months to develop with the last adult trait to appear being the pink shading of the male’s bill. As in most honeyguides, the outer retrices of the tail are white in both sexes. ("Family Indicatoridae (Honeyguides)", 2002; Berruit, et al., 1995; Johnsgard, 1997; Spottiswoode and Colebrook-Robjent, 2007)

  • Sexual Dimorphism
  • sexes alike
  • sexes colored or patterned differently
  • Range mass
    46.8 to 48.9 g
    1.65 to 1.72 oz
  • Average length
    20 cm
    7.87 in


Males display for females by circling above a female while making drumming sounds with their wings. After landing near the courted female the male approaches her, spreading his white edged retrices, fluttering his wings and making a low shrill call. The mating system is not well defined, as individuals do not participate in any form of parental care and have no association after the actual mating. ("Family Indicatoridae (Honeyguides)", 2002; Dean and MacDonald, 1981; Johnsgard, 1997)

Greater honeyguides breed between September and October. After mating, females lay their eggs in the nest cavities of other species. The female lays one egg per nest, and lays between 4 and 8 per breeding season. After having laid an egg in an host nest, the female will pierce the hosts’ eggs to ensure her chicks' survival. Parasitized species then incubate and raise greater honeyguide young as their own. Females time breeding so that their eggs will hatch with the brood of chicks they parasitize. The eggs take about 18 days to hatch so if she lays her eggs too late the surrogate mother will no longer incubate the greater honeyguide eggs as she knows the eggs not to be hers. When greater honeyguide young hatch, it furthermore uses its toothed, hooked bill to kill any chicks in the nest or pierce other unhatched eggs. If successful, a greater honeyguide chick will grow quickly as it is often the only chick remaining and receives all feeding attempts by the parents. Chicks fledge after 30 to 40 days, and are often fed by the parents for an additional 7 to 10 days. Juveniles reach reproductive maturity when they are 1 year old. ("Family Indicatoridae (Honeyguides)", 2002; Johnsgard, 1997; Spottiswoode and Colebrook-Robjent, 2007)

  • Breeding interval
    Greater honeyguides breed once yearly.
  • Breeding season
    Greater honeyguides breed from September to October.
  • Range eggs per season
    4 to 8
  • Average time to hatching
    18 days
  • Range fledging age
    30 to 40 days
  • Range time to independence
    7 to 10 days
  • Average age at sexual or reproductive maturity (female)
    1 years
  • Average age at sexual or reproductive maturity (male)
    1 years

Being brood parasites, the parents have little involvement with their own offspring. They may defend the broods they parasite from other predators and other brood parasites. Mothers have been known to pierce the eggs of the host's other offspring while fathers distract host birds.

  • Parental Investment
  • no parental involvement
  • altricial
  • pre-fertilization
    • provisioning
    • protecting
      • female
  • pre-hatching/birth
    • protecting
      • male
      • female


It has been noted that greater honeyguides can live up to 12 years in the wild. No information is available for lifespan in captivity. ("Family Indicatoridae (Honeyguides)", 2002)

  • Typical lifespan
    Status: captivity
    12 (high) years


Indicator indicator is a diurnal, solitary species that gets its name from an unusual trait found in this and one other honeyguide species (Indicator variegatus). They guide other, stronger species to insect hives that honeyguides cannot access alone. These birds will call and flare their tail feathers to attract the attention of individuals that can be of assistance such as humans, honey badgers (ratels), or baboons. They lead other species to hidden beehives in the hope that they will crack open the hive and expose wax stores and larvae for greater honeyguides to consume. Although they are primarily solitary, groups of honeyguides will flock to a newly-opened beehive. ("Family Indicatoridae (Honeyguides)", 2002; Dean and MacDonald, 1981; Johnsgard, 1997)

Home Range

Greater honeyguides are nest parasites and thus do not actively defend their own nesting territory. There are some reports of honeyguides defending nests that they have laid an egg in to further insure their chicks' survival and ward off additional nest parasites. Groups of honeyguides will gather at food resources and they do not seem to defend these resources. Data on territory size for this species is unknown.

Communication and Perception

Males make vocal calls to attract mates and usually call from the same area year after year. Some females have been observed mimicking male calls from locations also used by males. Courtship behavior includes an aerial and auditory display by males, who swoop near females and create a distinct flight noise. Greater honeyguides also give distinct calls to honey-gathering mammal species to lead them to hives; by guiding stronger organisms to bee hives, the birds gain access to the stores of wax and larvae. Greater honeyguides' white tails are used to entice hosts to leave their nests, allowing the female honeyguides to lay eggs within the nest. Like all birds, greater honeyguids perceive their environment through visual, tactile, auditory and chemical stimuli. ("Family Indicatoridae (Honeyguides)", 2002; Johnsgard, 1997)

Food Habits

Greater honeyguides have a unique, highly wax-based diet and require enzymes in the digestive system to breakdown this normally indigestible food. They also feed on grubs and larvae found in Hymonoptera hives, and insect wings of flying swarming colonies. Greater honeyguides guide honey-gathering mammal species to hives of bees, termites, and other insects that are inaccessible to the birds alone. They occasionally will eat fruit, and will rarely consume bird eggs. Young greater honeyguides thrive predominantly on fruit that the host parents bring. ("Family Indicatoridae (Honeyguides)", 2002; Dean and MacDonald, 1981)

  • Animal Foods
  • eggs
  • insects


There are no known predators of greater honeyguides.

Ecosystem Roles

Greater honeyguides are closely involved with several honey-consuming mammal species, but primarily honey badgers (Mellivora capensis). Honeyguides will lead these large, clawed mammals to hidden insect hives which the mammal can break open and feed on. Honeyguides may then gain access to the previously inaccessible supply of wax and larvae.

Greater honeyguides are brood parasites and have a negative impact on the species it parasitizes. After a female lays her eggs in a host's nest, she proceeds to puncture all of the host's eggs in the nest. If she does not destroy the host's eggs, the greater honeyguide chick is equipped with a sharp, curve-tipped bill which is used to destroy any other nestlings. The productivity of the host species is greatly decreased by nest parasitism. Greater honeyguides are known brood parasites of the following species: golden-tailed woodpeckers, black-collared barbets, crested barbets, brown-hooded kingfishers, striped kingfisher, white-fronted bee-eaters, little bee-eaters, swallow-tailed bee-eaters, southern carmine bee-eaters, Cape glossy starlings, Meves's starlings, and pied starlings. ("Family Indicatoridae (Honeyguides)", 2002; Johnsgard, 1997)

Species Used as Host
Mutualist Species

Economic Importance for Humans: Positive

Greater honeyguides have played a role in folklore in the past for their habit of leading honey-eating mammals to hives. They have been depicted in many stories and works of art. ("Family Indicatoridae (Honeyguides)", 2002; Johnsgard, 1997)

Economic Importance for Humans: Negative

The diet of greater honeyguides consists largely of wax and larvae of hive-dwelling insects. Greater honeyguides may lead honey-eating mammals to farmed bee hives where both species may inflict damage to the farmer's crops. There is evidence to suggest that greater honeyguides may spread a form of blight to farmed hives if they've come in contact with an infected hive. ("Family Indicatoridae (Honeyguides)", 2002)

Conservation Status

The IUCN Red List deems greater honeyguides of least concern due to their large range and recent population increases. This slight population increase has been attributed to an increase in man-made forests where the birds breed.


Karlo Martin (author), Florida State University, Emily DuVal (editor), Florida State University, Rachelle Sterling (editor), Special Projects.



living in sub-Saharan Africa (south of 30 degrees north) and Madagascar.

World Map


uses sound to communicate


living in landscapes dominated by human agriculture.


young are born in a relatively underdeveloped state; they are unable to feed or care for themselves or locomote independently for a period of time after birth/hatching. In birds, naked and helpless after hatching.


Referring to an animal that lives in trees; tree-climbing.

bilateral symmetry

having body symmetry such that the animal can be divided in one plane into two mirror-image halves. Animals with bilateral symmetry have dorsal and ventral sides, as well as anterior and posterior ends. Synapomorphy of the Bilateria.


an animal that mainly eats meat


uses smells or other chemicals to communicate

  1. active during the day, 2. lasting for one day.

animals that use metabolically generated heat to regulate body temperature independently of ambient temperature. Endothermy is a synapomorphy of the Mammalia, although it may have arisen in a (now extinct) synapsid ancestor; the fossil record does not distinguish these possibilities. Convergent in birds.


An animal that eats mainly insects or spiders.


offspring are produced in more than one group (litters, clutches, etc.) and across multiple seasons (or other periods hospitable to reproduction). Iteroparous animals must, by definition, survive over multiple seasons (or periodic condition changes).


having the capacity to move from one place to another.

native range

the area in which the animal is naturally found, the region in which it is endemic.


reproduction in which eggs are released by the female; development of offspring occurs outside the mother's body.


an organism that obtains nutrients from other organisms in a harmful way that doesn't cause immediate death


Referring to something living or located adjacent to a waterbody (usually, but not always, a river or stream).

scrub forest

scrub forests develop in areas that experience dry seasons.

seasonal breeding

breeding is confined to a particular season


remains in the same area


reproduction that includes combining the genetic contribution of two individuals, a male and a female


lives alone


uses touch to communicate


Living on the ground.


the region of the earth that surrounds the equator, from 23.5 degrees north to 23.5 degrees south.

tropical savanna and grassland

A terrestrial biome. Savannas are grasslands with scattered individual trees that do not form a closed canopy. Extensive savannas are found in parts of subtropical and tropical Africa and South America, and in Australia.


A grassland with scattered trees or scattered clumps of trees, a type of community intermediate between grassland and forest. See also Tropical savanna and grassland biome.

temperate grassland

A terrestrial biome found in temperate latitudes (>23.5° N or S latitude). Vegetation is made up mostly of grasses, the height and species diversity of which depend largely on the amount of moisture available. Fire and grazing are important in the long-term maintenance of grasslands.


uses sight to communicate


2002. Family Indicatoridae (Honeyguides). Pp. 274-296 in J Del Hoyo, A Elliot, J Sargatal, eds. Handbook of the Birds of the World, Vol. 7, 1 Edition. Spain: Lynx Edicions.

2007. "Ratel" (On-line). Wildlives: African Animals. Accessed February 10, 2010 at

Berruit, A., B. McIntosh, R. Walter. 1995. Parasitism of the blue swallow Hirundo atrocaerulea by the greater honeyguide Indicator indicator. OSTRICH, 66, 2-3: 94.

Dean, W., I. MacDonald. 1981. A review of Afrian birds feeding in assocaition with mammals. Ostrich, 52: 135-155.

Dean, W., R. Siegfried, A. MacDonald. 1990. The Fallacy, Fact, and Fate of Guiding Behavior in the Greater Honeyguide. Conservation Biology, Vol 4, No. 1: 99-101.

Johnsgard, P. 1997. Avian Brood Parasites: Deception at the Nest. Oxford: Oxford Publishing Press.

Sibley, C., J. Ahlquist. 1990. Phylogeny and Classification of Birds. New Haven.

Spottiswoode, C., J. Colebrook-Robjent. 2007. Egg puncturing by the brood parasitic Greater Honeyguide and potential host counteradaptations. Behavorial Ecology, 18, 4: 792-799.