May 2021

A bird in the hand


A bird in the hand

Being one of the fortunate few people in the world who get to work in a wildlife environment every day, I often get asked if I ever get tired of doing what I do… 

My answer is always the same, you just never know if something amazing might happen today, and such a day happened just recently whilst out on drive and viewing a large herd of around 500 Cape buffalo. These large herds are always accompanied by large amounts of oxpeckers, mostly the red-billed variety, but also in more growing numbers, the less common yellow-billed oxpecker.

Yellow-billed oxpeckers are also sometimes revered to as tick birds because of the service they provide of removing ticks from the hides of (mostly) larger animals like Cape buffalo and both rhino species. The species suffered near extinction because of cattle dip that was used in the pioneer days of ranching in the lowveld. Fortunately, policies and pesticides have changed and these charismatic birds are making a comeback and their numbers are increasing, and they seem to be breeding further south into their historic breeding areas.

Whilst observing the herd I suddenly noticed a juvenile bird approach the vehicle and land on top of George, my tracker’s head. It proceeded to hop onto my head as well as one of the guests on the vehicle. It proceeded to hop and peck our heads as if to try and remove ticks… an interesting, if rather painful experience!

I shared this experience with Guy Hausler who is running the yellow-billed oxpecker research project in the greater Kruger National Park, and according to his knowledge this is the first time such behaviour has occurred and been reported. Very exciting indeed! And so, my story ends with my answer … You just never know if something amazing will happen today!

Quentin Swanevelder
By Quentin Swanevelder
Field Guide