Were a facetious journalist to attempt to endow a mythical bird with some startling but imaginary instinct, he would hardly be likely to go to the lengths to which nature has gone in the case of the common honey guide of Africa. The strange behavior of this bird has so long been known, moreover, that it surprises one to find how little has been written about it beyond simple accounts of the way the bird attracts the attention of men and reveals to them the location of beehives. Sparrman, who traveled in South Africa as long ago as 1775, gave one of the best descriptions from his personal observations, and was able to quote a still earlier account of the bird, accurate in the main, by Father Jerome Lobo, who had gone as a missionary to Abyssinia in 1625. As Sparrman concluded, the moroc, or honey bird, of the Abyssinians could be none other than the common honey guide. This testimony has been confirmed by a great number of travelers, sportsmen, and trained ornithologists who have since visited the open grassy regions of Africa, over which the bird is so widely distributed.
Avoiding the heavy forests of the Congo basin and other parts of western Africa, the common honey guide (Indicator indicator) ranges from Cape Colony to northeast Africa, and then across the Sudan to Senegal. It is a plain-colored, brownish-gray bird, scarcely larger than our American bluebird, but much more stockily built, with short dense plumage, and a skin so tough that it has often been considered a cuirass against the stings of bees. When fully grown, both sexes have half-concealed epaulets of yellow; and the male bird is then distinguished by a large black throat patch. The immature birds are somewhat greener and until a few years ago were regarded as a distinct species. The nearest relatives of the honey guides, in our North American fauna, are the woodpeckers; yet the honey guides have neither stiffened tail feathers nor an extensile tongue.