Indicatoridae (Honeyguides)

Greater Honeyguide

Greater Honeyguide (Indicator indicator)

Honeyguides are small to small-medium arboreal birds described as having drab brownish and greenish plumage with distinct white outer-tail markings.  They have small heads with short bills and the nostrils raised in many species.  They have been described as passerine-like birds although the share some characteristics of other picids (especially the barbets).

There are 4 genera, 17 species and 33 taxa.  Sizes vary with specie from 10-20cm and an estimated 12-60grams.  Indicatoridae is commonly divided into two ‘tribes’; the ‘thin-billed Prodotiscinae (including: Prodotiscus, and two species of Melignomon) and the thick-billed Indicatorinae which includes the typical (Indicator genus and Melichneutes).

Range and Habitat

The range is Sub-Saharan Africa and southern Asia where they inhabit forest and woodland, along streamsides in near-desert habitat; and lowlands to near tree-line in mountainous areas.

Status in the Wild

No species are listed as threatened however human encroachment and habitat destruction are a threat to most honeyguides.

Courtship and Egglaying

Much more research is needed on courtship and laying dynamics however, it is known that all Honeyguides are nest parasites, which use other cavity nesters as well as some cup nester species as hosts.  Seasonal rains play a role in the extent of pairing as well as eggs laid in certain areas.  Males have territories in which they defend and sing to proclaim them while hens will seek out areas with a good food supply.  If this happens to be in a male’s territory then courtship and copulation can occur.  A hen will seek out an active cavity nest (of perhaps a woodpecker or barbet) and deposit her egg(s) in the active host nest.  This act does not always go unnoticed by the host as it has been recorded that honeyguides have been attacked and even killed by hosts.  Therefore, it may take only 10-15 seconds to lay an egg and leave; and possibly puncturing a host egg, purposely, in the mean time.

As with any nest-parasitic specie, timing is important so that an egg(s) is deposited to hatch at around the same time as the host eggs hatch.  Otherwise, their egg(s) may be tossed from the nest. 

Other known host species are: bee-eaters, kingfishers, starlings.      

In general their eggs are opaque to white with the exception being the Green-backed Honeyguide (Prodotiscus zambesiae) that lays a white or blue egg; which matches the egg of one of its host group, the white-eyes (Zosterops).  Hens may lay as many as 20 eggs in a season; incubation is 12-18 days.


Yellow-rumped Honeyguide on beehive

While studying bees on the cliffs of Dovan, Nepal,
Ben Underwood photographed
this Yellow-rumped Honeyguide on a hive.


Beeswax from honeybees (Apis) in particular, is the major part of their diet.  However, all honeyguides are known to consume insects and spiders as well as larvae and flying insects, some plant material and fruits.  In the slender-billed species, scale insects (Coccidae) replace beeswax.  These insects are said to also be an important diet item to the Zenker’s honeyguide and the Yellow-footed honeyguide as well.

Although honeyguides have very thick skin (probably to protect them from bee stings) they are not immune to the toxin.  Dead honeyguides have been found under bee’s nests with as many as 300 stings, especially around the eyes.

Rearing of Chicks by Foster-parents

Honeyguide chicks hatch out altricial.  Even so, the naked and blind neonate, which has a well-developed egg tooth and curved membranous hooks on the tips of its mandibles, moves its head around biting and clinging to anything it touches.  By doing so, it will puncture host eggs and even mortally wound a host neonate.  The chick will grow rapidly and beg loudly; some species mimic the begging calls of host chicks.  Smaller species fledge in 21 days while the larger species do so in 35 days. 

In certain species (barbets, woodpeckers, kingfishers, starlings) the fledgling will confuse the host parents by showing no interest in foods, foraging techniques or not returning to nest.  This causes stress between the foster parents and the parasitic chick which often leads it getting chased out of the territory.  It is noted that this occurs less frequently among foster-parent warbles and white-eyes.

Movement and Migration

Some local movement has been recorded however almost all honeyguides are year-long residents.  The Yellow-rumped Honeyguide exhibits a facsimile of migration by moving into the Himalayas after the breeding season.  

The Guiding Cooperation of the Honeyguide and the Ratel

It has been written, in fable more than in natural histories that the honeyguide and the ratel or ‘honey badger’ (Mellivora capensis) has a relationship in which the bird coerces the mammal to follow it to a bees nest where the ratel tears open the nest to eat the honey and the honeyguide then dines on the beeswax.  Although this remains a possibility, it has never been fully researched.  J. deGraauw 01/05


Short, L.L., and J.F.M. Horne. 2002. Family Indicatoridae (Honeyguides), pp. 274-295 in del Hoyo, J., Elliott, A., Sargatal, J., eds., Handbook of the Birds of the World. Vol. 7. Lynx Edicions, Barcelona, Spain.

Terres, J.K., 1980. Piciformes, pp.727-728, The Audubon Society Encyclopedia of North American Birds. Alfred A. Knopf, Inc.


The Piciformes TAG currently has no program species for this Family.

Spotted Honeyguide
Indicator maculatus

Willcock’s Honeyguide
Indicator willcocksi

Yellow-footed Honeyguide
Melignomon zenkeri eisentrauti

Scaly-throated Honeyguide
Indicator variegates

Least Honeyguide
Indicator exilis

Zenker’s Honeyguide
M. z. zenkeri

Greater Honeyguide
Indicator indicator

Dwarf Honeyguide
Indicator meliphilus pumilio

Cassin’s Honeyguide
Prodotiscus insignus Insignus

Malaysian Honeyguide
Indicator archipelagicus

Pallid Honeyguide
Indicator m. meliphilus

Green-backed Honeyguide
P. i. zambesiae

Lesser Honeyguide
Indicator minor

Yellow-rumped Honeyguide
Indicator xanthontus

Wahlberg’s Honeyguide
P. regulus

Thick-billed Honeyguide
Indicator conirostris

Lyre-tailed Honeyguide
Melichneutes robustus

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