By Stephanie Pappas, Senior Writer | May 01, 2014 02:00pm ET
The red-eyed, black-feathered fork-tailed drongo is an irrepressible mimic, capable of reproducing the calls of everything from other birds to mongoose-like meerkats. Now, a new study finds that these drongo birds are strategic copycats: They "cry wolf" about potential danger, startling other animals and stealing their food.
What's more, drongos (Dicrurus adsimilis) alter their cries to keep their targets from becoming inured to the trick.
This ability to change up calls when one of the calls isn't working may be an evolutionary way to get around the problem the little boy in Aesop's fable ran into: If you raise the alarm about danger too many times, eventually, no one listens. The problem plagues any animal that uses a deceptive strategy, said study researcher Tom Flower, a behavioral ecologist at the Percy FitzPatrick Institute of African Ornithology.