African Honeyguides

Research on a remarkable
human-animal relationship

Jess Lund

Jess Lund with nestling greater honeyguide


I am an ornithologist and evolutionary biologist focussing on the ways in which species interact, and the consequences of these interactions on the evolutionary trajectories of populations. My work is predominantly field-based, but I supplement behavioural and experimental data with genetic and genomic methods. I am driven by a passion for natural history in general, and birds in particular, which was cultivated growing up on a farm in Limpopo (north-eastern South Africa).

In 2018 I began working with Claire Spottiswoode, and have been part of the team since then. For my Masters at the University of Cape Town, I investigated the evolution of highly accurate egg mimicry by African cuckoos, and the effectiveness of egg ‘signatures’ in their fork-tailed drongo hosts. I then switched to working on honeyguides for my PhD in 2020, and have been smitten ever since. My fieldwork is based both at a study site near Choma, Zambia (see, and in the Niassa Special Reserve, Mozambique. Despite temporarily moving to the UK for my PhD at Cambridge, I spend as much time as possible in the field with honeyguides.

Research focus

My research focusses on the causes and ecological consequences of host specificity in brood parasites. I aim to bring together the two distinct strings of greater honeyguide life history: their lives as brood parasites of bee-eaters, hoopoes, kingfishers, and others; and their lives as mutualists with human honey-hunters. My main research aim is to determine how host-specific adaptations, and contrasting host rearing environments, might influence the adult lives of brood parasites. For the greater honeyguide, this involves investigating their morphology, cooperation with humans, gut microbiome, movement patterns, and mating system. As part of the ERC honeyguides project, I have carried out fieldwork on honeyguide and host gut microbiomes in Zambia, and GPS tracking of honeyguides in the Niassa Special Reserve.

 In addition to my core work, I am also interested in and continue to collaborate on several other projects investigating the consequences of host-specificity in cuckoo finches, the genetic mechanisms of egg signatures and forgeries, and the nomadic movements of bronze-winged coursers.

Peer-reviewed publications



Honey-hunting Research Network workshop

The Honey-hunting Research Network (coordinated by Jessica van der Wal) met in Cape Town for a very enjoyable week of analysing and comparing interview data from honey-hunting cultures across Africa, painting a picture of the human cultural variation relevant to honeyguides, and its uncertain future on a rapidly changing continent. Joining in person were Wiro-Bless Kamboe, Rochelle Mphetlhe, George M’manga, Sanele Nhlabatsi, Daniella Mhangwana, Celiwe Ngcamphalala, Claire Spottiswoode and Jessica van der Wal. Thank you to the Cultural Evolution Society Transformation Fund for funding our get-together!

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New paper on human-honeyguide cooperation and communication

A new study from the Honeyguide Research Project shows that Greater Honeyguides learn the distinct calls that honey-hunters in different parts of Africa use to communicate with them, facilitating cooperation between species. Human honey-hunters signal to honeyguides using specialised calls that vary culturally across Africa. The new study shows using field experiments in Mozambique and Tanzania that honeyguides prefer the specialised calls of the local human culture they interact with, compared to those of a foreign culture. This implies that honeyguides can adjust to human cultural diversity, increasing the benefits of cooperation for both people and birds.

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