Body size of honeyguide species runs from 4 to 8 in (10-20 cm). The plumage is nondescript and cryptic, mostly olive-greens, grays, browns, black, and white, with occasional touches of yellow, depending on species. Only three species, including the greater (Indicator indicator) and lyre-tailed hon-eyguides, show sexual dichromatism in their plumage.
The bill is short and sturdy, well fitted to gouging wax and probing for insects in tree bark, and in most species the nostrils have raised rims to protect them from influxes of beeswax, honey, and other sorts of comb contents. The tail is long, often marked with white bars that the bird displays in flight, as guides for juveniles or in mating displays. The legs and toes are strong for clinging to tree bark, and the claws are long and hooked. As in all Piciformes, two toes are directed forward, the other two backward.
The wings are long, narrow, and pointed, allowing for vigorous flight, complicated maneuvering, and aerial acrobatics, which some species use to advantage in mating and territorial displays. The wings of the greater scaly-throated (I. variegatus), and lyre-tailed honeyguides make a distinctive noise in flight.
Honeyguide vision and hearing are acute. The olfactory lobe of the brain is well developed, although there are no studies showing to what extent it uses olfaction to track down bee nests. There are many accounts of the birds flying into missionary churches and attacking the beeswax candles, probably alerted by the odor, which had been intensified and spread by the candle flames.
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