You are currently viewing Fascinating Honeyguides and Honeybirds in East Africa
Scaly-throated Honeyguide


Order – Piciformes contains largely arboreal, insectivorous bird species. Almost all species in the order Piciformes are zygodactyl. 2 toes point forward, 2 toes backwards. This seems to be ideal for an arboreal lifestyle.

Suborder – Picoidea, Infraorder – Picides – contains Honeyguides, Honeybirds and Woodpeckers

Family – Indicatoridae – Honeyguides are also called Indicator Birds or Honeybirds. 

Most species are found in Africa, 2 in India. The colour is mostly dull green. The white tail markings and the shape of the mostly stubby beak help in identifying the species.

Especially 2 species of the genus Indicator – Scaly-throated (not agreed by all researchers) and Greater Honeyguide are known to lead people to wild bee hives. This collaboration might go back to stone age. People smoke out the bees, take the honey and must give the bird the larvae and wax. They have the unique ability to digest beeswax. If humans fail to give them their share, it is believed the Honeyguides will lead them to a Black Mamba or a Lion next time.

In Northern Tanzania Honeyguides partner with Hadzabe people. They are hunter / gatherers and still live almost their original lifestyle protected by the government of Tanzania. Interested guest can visit them near Lake Eyasi.

How far there is a collaboration between Honeyguides and Honey Badgers is under discussion. For sure the birds might hear when a Honey Badger is raiding a bee hive and will see to get a bite. Honey Badgers are hard to get a sting since their skin is loose and thick.

Honeyguides (Indicator and Prodotiscus) are brood parasites and prefer hosts with nests in tree holes such as Barbets and Woodpeckers. The hedgling kicks out a young of the host or pierces eggs with a needle-sharp hook at the tip of their beaks.

Some other species prefer bee-eating hosts like Bee-eaters. These chicks also kill the host’s young with the hook at the tip of their beak. The Honeyguide mother incubates the egg a day longer internally so the young is more advanced at the time of breaking the egg than the hosts egg.

Honeyguides have characteristic calls. Birding guides and the people collaborating with them, now them well.

To give you as actual information as possible we use Avibase, the books “Birds of Africa South of the Sahara”, “Birds of East Africa”, “Birds of Kenya and Northern Tanzania”. Then we put the most characteristic information to the photo.

You can also follow us on Facebook “Bird photography Safaris Kenya” and see the numerous species as well as the beautiful photos from Lorenzo Barelli.

Click on the photo for larger view. The names of the photographers are on the photo and in the text. Without the generosity of several amazing bird photographers it had not been possible to create the pages with so many illustrated bird species. We are lucky we can even illustrate some of the hard to find Honeyguide species of East Africa. Those photos without name are from Elvira Wolfer.

Since some of the species here have a wide distribution range you can find many of them during most of our tours. To find a particular species with a small distribution area or a specific subspecies we will advise you on the most suitable itinerary.

There are species from West Africa but some of them can be found in Albertine Rift or South Western Uganda. Very few species are endemic, while some subspecies are endemic to East Africa. You will find this particular information below the bird photo.

Samples of birding safari tours to some of the best birding places you can find here

Scaly-throated Honeyguide (Indicator variegatus) is scarce to locally common in forests and wooded areas from the Horn of Africa to South Africa from sea level to 3.500 m.

Lesser Honeyguide (Indicator minor teitensis) occurs from SE South Sudan, SE Ethiopia, S Somalia, Kenya, Tanzania to Southern Africa in well wooded habitats from sea level to 3.000 m. Photo Per Holmen. The supecies riggenbachi is found in EA in W Uganda and Burundi. Photo Per Holmen

Greater Honeyguide (Indicator indicator) is widespread South of Africa in savanna, wooded areas but avoids dense forests. Photos Lorenzo Barelli, Per Holmen. The call is typical listen to the different calls

Thick-billed Honeyguide (Indicator c. conirostris) is found in Ea NW of Lake Victoria and W Uganda in interior forests from 700 – 2.300 m. Photo Per Holmen. Sometimes considered a subspecies of Lesser Honeyguide

Least Honeyguide (Indicator exilis pachyrhynchus) is uncommon in forest canopy, often near water, tall trees in Rwanda, Burundi, W Kenya. Photo Per Holmen, Kakamega Forest

Spotted Honeyguide (Indicator maculatus stictithorax) is found in Central Africa. In East Africa the only place to get it is in Semliki National Park in SW Uganda. Habitat forests and forest edges.

Willcock’s Honeyguide (Indicator w. willcocksi) is in EA Africa found in W Uganda and Rwanda in forest canopy, tall trees, forest edges.

Dwarf Honeyguide (Indicator pumilio) lives in forest above 1.500 m in E DRC, W Rwanda, W Burundi, SW Uganda – Albertine Rift endemic. Photo Per Holmen

Pallid Honeyguide (Indicator m. meliphilus) lives in forest, dense woodland and gardens in E Uganda, C and SE Kenya, NE Tanzania. Photo Lorenzo Barelli

Lyre-tailed Honeyguide (Melichneutes robustus) is a West African and DRC species. The only known place in EA is in Semliki National Park in SW Uganda. Habitat: Forests, forest edges, gallery forests

Brown-backed Honeybird, Wahlberg’s Honeybird, Wahlberg’s Honeyguide, Sharp-billed Honeyguide (Prodotiscus r. regulus) is uncommon and local in open woodland. In EA you can find it in Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda. Photo Elvira Wolfer, Lewa Conservancy

Green-backed Honeybird, Eastern green-backed Honeyguide, Green-backed Honeyguide, Slender-billed Honeyguide (Prodotiscus zambesiae ellenbecki) is rather local at forest edges and mixed woodland from sea level to 1.850 m. Photo from Nairobi area. The nominate form is found from S Tanzania further South.

Cassin’s Honeybird, Cassin’s Honeyguide (Prodotiscus i. insignis) is the subspecies found very local in Kenya, Uganda, DRC. Photo Per Holmen, Bwindi impenetrable Forest

Zenker’s Honeyguide (Melignomon zenkeri) is in EA only known from Semliki National Park at 700 m and Kibale National Park at 1.500 m in Uganda.