Proving that the term "bird brain" is a dubious misnomer, biologists have discovered drongos in Africa which have concocted a devilish way of tricking meerkats into giving up their food, according to the BBC.

While following the small mammals around, drongos often wait patiently for the meerkats to catch a juicy meal like a gecko, larvae or scorpion. They then let out an abrupt alarm call, which causes the trusting meerkats to run for cover, allowing the clever birds to swoop in and steal the food.

It's a wily bit of chicanery in its own right, but the sophistication of the drongos' hoax gets even trickier. Rather than use their own alarm call when being deceptive, the birds instead choose to mimic the alarm call of another species. 

According to Tom Flower, the Cambridge University researcher who discovered the behavior, this extra bit of sophisticated mimicry keeps their deception "believable."

"It's a nifty trick," Flower said. "Using your own alarm call won't get you too far — just like the boy who cried wolf — the responder will stop listening to you."

In other words, the birds seem to mimic the alarm calls of other species so that the meerkats don't catch on to the source of the deception. Also, by reserving their own alarm calls for genuine threats, drongos shrewdly retain their credibility.

"This might keep their deception racket going, increasing their food stealing profit," added Flower. "It would be like the boy in Aesop's fable mimicking the voice of another villager when he cried wolf in order to continue fooling the villagers."

Though drongos have long been known to use vocal mimicry, researchers had no idea just how elaborate the hoax was until now. The birds even appeared to deliberately change the type of call they made when the meerkats caught on to the trick, and a few birds successfully mimicked the meerkats' own alarm calls.

"[Vocal mimicry] is very common in birds, but [previously] we had no idea why they did it," said Flower.

Bryan Nelson ( @@brynelson ) writes about everything from environmental problems here on Earth to big questions in space.

Bird steals food from meerkats by making fake alarm calls
Researchers have witnessed drongos in Africa's Kalahari playing clever tricks on unsuspecting meerkats in order to steal their food.