Rom was astonished when the chicken-sized megapode responded to his field assistant, Theodorus. Both men were hiking through the forest near Muting, Irian Jaya, now called West Papua, when Theo picked up one of numerous nuts from the forest floor. A borer had neatly incised a hole in the shell and hollowed out the oil-rich kernel.
Hidden behind palm fronds laced together, Theo pressed the nut to his lips and whistled, mimicking the call of a male megapode. Within minutes, a male answered. Theo continued to whistle until the bird came closer and closer. Once it was within sight, he felled it with an arrow. He had three megapodes lying dead inside the hide in half an hour.
Mimicking the bird is not as simple as blowing a hollow nut. When Rom tried Theo’s trick, he sounded like a megapode burp.
Although expert mimicry of animal calls is an admired skill in humans, do animals mimic other animals to their own advantage?
Tribals in the Nilgiris have long said tigers mimic their prey as a hunting strategy. During the British Raj, hunters noted tigers 'pook,' a sound remarkably like the alarm call of sambhar. George Schaller describes in The Deer and the Tiger*, 'It is a loud, clear 'pok,' somewhat flatter in tone and lacking the resonance of the deer call; it is given once or several times in succession.'
Why do tigers mimic sambhar calls? Is it to lure them close enough to ambush? Schaller combed through the writings of hunters and naturalists of the colonial era like F.W. Champion, A.A. Dunbar-Brander, and E.S. Lewis. Tigers seemed to mimic sambhar alarm call while peeing, approaching a kill, disturbed at a kill by man, leading a male tiger away from a kill, seeing a man on a tree, and when shot. In fact, tigers seem to pook on every occasion except hunting.
Yet, some thought pooking was a hunting strategy, while others thought it was a mating call. During the course of his two-year study, Schaller heard tigers pooking to each other, but none during a hunt. He surmised they advertise their presence to prevent sudden encounters. Perhaps the resemblance to sambhar alarm call is mere coincidence.
The Nilgiris’ tribes aren’t the only ones to believe in tigers’ mimicking skills. According to hunters’ lore in faraway Siberia, not only do Amur tigers imitate the calls of Asian black bears, a regular part of the cats’ diet, but also bears’ prey to attract bears. Could there be something more to tiger pooking?
Biologists of the Wildlife Conservation Society observed a troop of pied tamarins, squirrel-sized primates, feeding on a fig tree in the Brazilian Amazon, when they heard the distress call of a tamarin pup from a thicket of lianas. The leader of the monkey troop descended from the tree to investigate while urging the rest to flee. Ignoring his directions, three other monkeys followed him, concerned for the young one.
Suddenly, a margay, a spotted cat smaller than a house cat, leapt from the tangle of vegetation and walked towards the tamarin troop. The chief screamed and the troop fled. Although the trick didn’t yield any tamarins that time, mimicking a young prey animal in distress is a cunning ploy. It’s possible margays learn the behaviour from their mothers who teach them to hunt, so the trick may be shared by families.
Amerindians say other cats like cougars, ocelots, and jaguars also mimic a range of prey from rodents like agoutis to short, plump, flightless tinamous birds.
If margays can mimic their prey to fool them, is it possible tigers do the same? Interestingly, despite many enthusiasts and biologists observing tigers, we don’t know yet.
*Thanks to Shyamal Lakshminarayanan for reminding me of George Schaller’s writings on the subject.