Bird and human mutualism: The Greater Honeyguide and honey-hunters

Greater Honeyguides know where bees’ nests are located and like to eat beeswax; humans know how to subdue the bees using fire, and open the nest using axes. By working together, the two species can locate the bee nest, overcome the bees’ defences and gain access to the nest, thus providing beeswax for the honeyguides and honey for the humans.

This specialised relationship is a rare example of animal-human cooperation – mutualism – that has evolved through natural selection. Pioneering research was done in Kenya by Dr Hussein Isack in the 1980s, who first demonstrated scientifically how the mutualism functions. Now we have the opportunity to take part in a citizen science study.

Researchers from the University of Cambridge in the UK and the University of Cape Town in South Africa are working in close cooperation with rural honey-hunting communities in Africa to study the foraging partnership between the Greater Honeyguide and the human honey-hunters whom it guides to bees’ nests. They want to understand the ecology, evolution and conservation implications of the honeyguide-human relationship, as a window into the origin and maintenance of mutually beneficial interactions between species (mutualisms).

If you have seen or heard a Greater Honeyguide anywhere in Africa, and whether or not it guided you, please tell them about it! Visit the citizen science project at <Honeyguiding.me> for more information and to submit a sighting.

“The honeyguide-human relationship is currently dwindling throughout Africa, and before it fades away, we need to understand this ancient part of our own species’ evolutionary history in those few places where it still thrives. This is relevant to conservation, because mutualisms can have wide reach in shaping ecological communities,” reads an excerpt from the Honeyguide Research Project.

Improving livelihoods in the Yala Ecosystem through chicken farming

You are likely to find indigenous chicken or Kuku Kienyeji on almost all menus in the eateries you visit. Many years of research and improvements on indigenous chicken breeds have made them one of Kenya’s most sought-after delicacies and rearing them a popular business undertaking. Improved local chicken breed possesses characteristics like their ability to thrive in different weather conditions, resistance to diseases, and improved growth rates, which allows it to favorably compete with exotic breeds.

The latest entrant into the chicken rearing business is a group of 50 women from Rawalo Village in Gem sub-county, Siaya County. This follows the operationalization of the poultry production unit constructed by Nature Kenya, with funding from the Darwin Initiative, through the Yala Ecosystem Site Support Group. The unit has a capacity of rearing 600 chickens. The three main functions of the unit will be incubation of chicks, rearing of chickens, and collection of eggs for sale. Brooder equipment including feeders and drinkers have been procured and 150 improved kienyeji chicks; 100 White Leghorn and 50 Kuroiler chicks delivered to kick-start the project.

“The first batch of chicks will be reared up to two months before being distributed to beneficiary farmers. Eggs produced by layers will be sold either for consumption or to local farmers for hatching to improve local breeds,” explains Emily Mateche, Nature Kenya’s Project Officer based in Siaya.

Nature Kenya has been at the forefront of initiating, developing, and diversifying sustainable nature-based enterprises in partnerships with local communities in Important Bird Areas (IBAs). The aim of such initiatives is to improve community livelihoods and support local conservation activities of the sites. These enterprises also provide alternatives to unsustainable livelihood options detrimental to the IBAs and have helped reduce over-dependence on nature products for livelihoods. Nature Kenya has successfully implemented similar ventures in Dakatcha Woodland and in Tana Delta.

“Our main objectives for establishing the chicken rearing business is to improve the household diet and income for the members of the local community. We also want to give women an alternative livelihood source to ease their reliance on natural resources to make a living,” says Emily.

To manage the chicken business, the chicken farmers have constituted a Chicken Business Sub-committee whose role is to develop internal business targets for the chicken rearing enterprise and to ensure continuous production of high quality and quantity at all times. Part of the committee’s responsibility will be to mobilize beneficiary chicken farmers to attend training and follow up to ensure skills acquired are shared with other farmers within the community and effectively utilized to enhance productivity in chicken farming.

The unit will also act as a marketing center for chicks, mature chicken and eggs. They will also negotiate for good prices in liaison with Upper Yala Site Support Group, Yala Ecosystem Site Support Group, and other partners including Nature Kenya. Value addition of products through the provision of services such as slaughtering, packaging, and sale of assorted chicken parts to butcheries or mini-markets will also be done by the unit. The beneficiaries have been linked to fish feed producers in Usenge town who will supply poultry feed at a subsidized cost. The fish and poultry feed making machine was procured with support from Nature Kenya and has helped fish farmers in Yala to minimize the cost of their fish production project.

Celebrating the use of technology in tracking bird migration

The news of the nonstop return flight of a Common Cuckoo from Kenya to Bangladesh on its way home to Mongolia is one of the highlights of this year’s World Migratory Bird Day. The cuckoo departed from Kenya on April 29, passed through Somalia on May 1, and flew 6,300 kilometers over six and a half days to arrive in Bangladesh on May 6. This shows both the amazing abilities of migratory birds and the effectiveness of technology in helping ornithologists to understand migration patterns.

The cuckoo was named Onon when together with three other Common Cuckoos it was fitted with a transmitter in 2019 by the Mongolia Cuckoo Project. Since June 2019, the project has been giving updates through their website <www.birdingbeijing.com>

The Common Cuckoo left Mongolia in 2019 for Zambia, its wintering grounds. Records of his return journey show that he arrived in Kenya from Kilimanjaro in Tanzania and spent three days in the upper Tana River after which his movement could not be tracked for a week. The next time his movement was picked up was the day he departed from the north eastern part of the country.

Onon flew over Somalia, the Indian Ocean and most of India. From Bangladesh, Onon moved to northeastern India and then to China. By mid-May, the transmitter placed him near Wuhan in Hubei Province in China where he was resting. On May 23, Onon was in Shanxi Province in northern China, still 1,200 km away from Khurkh in northern Mongolia where he was fitted with the transmitter.

Onon is not the only Cuckoo that made headlines. Carlton ΙΙ, another tagged Common Cuckoo, flew 7,500 kilometers from Ivory Coast to England in seven days. The Daily Mail reported that: “Cuckoos normally take two or three weeks to reach the United Kingdom after starting their journeys in the western Africa country of Gabon before stopping in the Ivory Coast. The three-year-old bird becomes the fastest tagged bird to make the trip from Africa to England.”

Since getting tagged by the British Trust for Ornithology in 2018, Carlton has flown over 35,000 Kilometers on his migration between Africa and England.

The World Migratory World Bird Day is celebrated every year in May and October. The day is set aside to raise awareness about migratory birds and to highlight the need for conservation of birds and their habitats. The National Audubon Society – BirdLife in the U.S. – estimates that at least 4,000 species of birds in the world are regular migrants. This represents about 40 per cent of the world’s bird population.

This year’s theme – Birds Connect Our World – was brought to life by the epic journey of these two cuckoos. By tracking their movement and relaying information about their migratory routes, birders were able use technology to appreciate the global linkage created by a single migratory bird. Onon, for instance, crossed through 20 borders connecting 15 different countries at a time the movement of humans within nations has been grounded to a halt following the outbreak of the novel Coronavirus Covid-19.

Some of the widely known hazards faced by migratory birds include high winds, ferocious hailstorms, lengthy sea crossing, thunderstorms and the trapping and killing for their meat. Habitat loss through the conversion of their feeding habitats to human settlement and ill placed infrastructure are some of the emerging bird migration barriers. The online platform created by the two projects offered an opportunity to gather information about the change of routes and the duration of rest taken by the migratory birds. The information will be used to coordinate efforts towards the conservation of some of the ecosystems which are important for the survival of these migratory birds.

World Migratory Bird Day and eBird Global Big Day Round-up

The World Migratory Bird Day – a celebration of the wonder of bird migration – coincided with the eBird Global Big Day on 9 May 2020. The eBird Global Big Day is a bird sighting event where birders all over the world observe birds on the same day and submit their observations on the eBird website. Birders from all countries of the world can take part; it’s the peak of bird migration in the northern countries, while tropical countries have a wider diversity of birds. This year, despite most of the world being on lockdown, more than 51,000 people took part in the Big Day and submitted checklists. The top ten countries were all in the Americas, where eBird is well established. Kenya took the leading position in Africa and emerged eleventh in the world, after 85 groups or individuals all over the country recorded 613 bird species.

Mt. Kenya Biodiversity Conservation Group (Mt. Kebio) marked World Migratory Bird Day by holding a birdwatch along a three-kilometre stretch in Burguret. Despite a low turnout, a total of 60 different bird species were sighted.

Members of the South Nandi Biodiversity Conservation Group (SONABIC) marked the day by holding a birdwatch in Chepkong’ony area in the South Nandi Forest. A total of 60 bird species were recorded by the 14 members who participated.

Friends of Kinangop Plateau organised a birdwatch and a bird talk about bird migration at the Friends of Kinangop Plateau Resource Centre. The 22 participants were divided into four groups to allow them to cover the different habitats – grasslands and water bodies -which characterise Kinangop area. A total of 118 bird species were recorded.

Down at the Coast, members of the Mida Creek Conservation and Awareness Group celebrated World Migratory Bird Day with a birdwatch along the shores of the Indian Ocean and areas adjacent to the Arabuko-Sokoke Forest. A total of 54 bird species were sighted among them Mangrove Kingfisher (an intra-African migrant), Yellow-throated Longclaw and Collared Palm Thrush.

Climate Smart Agriculture for Kenya’s Coffee Sector

Coffee is one of Kenya’s mainstay cash crops. Its contribution to the economy as a major foreign exchange earner and source of income cannot be understated. However, recent research by the Kenya Coffee Research Institute reveals that climate change has caused shifts in rainfall and temperature regimes distorting the health and productivity of Kenya’s ‘Black Gold’. The report also projects that the conditions will worsen and areas suitable for coffee growing will reduce drastically if remedial steps are not taken.

It is from this background that Nature Kenya and Rainforest Alliance/UTZ Program jointly designed a program to promote mainstreaming of climate-smart agriculture and ecosystem-based practices for the coffee sector value chain. Rainforest Alliance/UTZ program is a Netherlands-based certification program that is famed for coming up with sustainable farming techniques for coffee, tea, cocoa and hazelnut farmers around the world.

The mainstreaming program is meant to customize some of the strategies applied in climate-smart farming to suit the needs in the coffee sector. Mainstreaming ensures that farming practices adapt and mitigate to meet the prevailing changing climatic conditions while improving productivity. The target was stakeholders in the coffee sector nationally, and in five coffee growing counties of Meru, Embu, Kirinyaga, Nyeri and Murang’a. Other who were roped into the program include farmers’ representatives, coffee society leaders and extension service providers.

In the coffee sector value chain, climate change poses great risk to all stakeholders, but especially to farmers at the estates and smallholder level. There is still a major capacity gap on climate-smart agriculture, sustainable environmental practices and mitigation and adaptation measures towards climate change. To date, many smallholder farmers continue to follow environmentally harmful practices like cutting down trees, slashing and burning plant biomass, poor tillage practices, poor management of coffee processing by-products and the degradation of forests and riparian areas. The other major setbacks include an increase in the prevalence of pests and diseases and natural calamities such as landslides and drought. There is also a significant reduction of land suitable for coffee production.

The objectives of the program are to sensitize sector players on climate change policy and legal framework applicable to the coffee sector; the risks of climate change on coffee production and the entire value chain; and to educate them about the best practices of climate-smart agriculture and ecosystem-based adaptation opportunities that can be explored. Some of the identified applicable climate-smart interventions in the coffee sector include terracing, water harvesting and reduced burning of farm residue. Changing crop varieties, crop rotation, inter-cropping with nitrogen fixing legumes, and use of organic fertilizers are some of the practices that, if adopted, can improve soil health. Increasing agroforestry to increase shading, and reducing deforestation while increasing reforestation of riparian areas can also sustainably create resilience for climate change in coffee growing zones.

Coffee farmers are encouraged to engage in sustainable alternative livelihoods activities as a coping mechanism. The ventures include beekeeping, fish farming and chicken enterprise targeting improved local breeds. Farmers can make charcoal briquettes from coffee husks which can be used by farmers’ households and the surplus sold. There are environmental and health benefits realized with the use of charcoal briquettes coupled with energy saving stoves key among them being avoided deforestation, reduced inhalation of smoke and, women and children are saved time spent looking for fuelwood.

These low-cost strategies are designed to help smallholder farmers mitigate and adapt to the effects of climate change. Currently, Kenya’s annual coffee production stands at 40,000 metric tons. The World Coffee Research believes that implementation of climate-smart agriculture strategies in the coffee sector can improve farmers’ productivity by 45 per cent. When properly implemented, climate-smart agriculture has been known to increase productivity and support higher incomes for farmers, while reducing carbon emissions and equipping farmers with necessary skills to adapt.