January 2022

The Oxpecker


The Oxpecker

Doing a game drive in the summer season is one of the best things at Singita Kruger National Park and the rest of the park in general. The vegetation is thick and the grass is tall which makes it a bit difficult to spot game and even worse to spot predators like leopards, but it is a wonderful time because all the herbivores are getting enough food and water. They are all in a good condition and the game is spread out which makes it more interesting to be out in the bush. Lots of babies are seen at this time and the birding is great because we have a lot of migrant birds like European rollers and southern carmine bee-eaters that come here for our summer season because it is warm and there is enough food.

The long green grass makes it easy for a lot of animals to get parasites such as ticks, and the hooved animals are not able to remove all those parasites - in some areas they need help from others. An oxpecker is the best friend to many herbivores as they easily pluck the ticks for food and in doing so, they help the animal. Oxpeckers live in association with medium to large mammalian herbivores. The smallest host they use is impala and warthog, and the largest is rhino, buffalo and hippo. These birds spend their daylight hours picking and consuming out of the pelage of their hosts in a win-win relationship known as mutualistic symbiosis. Both species receive advantages from their relationship.

Oxpeckers also benefit their mammalian hosts by offering an early warning system. Birds are generally more vigilant than mammals and oxpeckers, especially, fly up noisily if they are startled, hissing and rasping characteristically. Herbivores react to oxpeckers' alarm calls.

Oxpeckers can help warn humans of potential danger or alert them to the presence of large herbivores. They will fly up off the backs of their hosts if startled, indicating the presence of a potentially dangerous game. They also descend onto their hosts noisily. The dipping flight of a flock with the accompanying chip-chip-rasp call is unmistakable. One can track the birds’ flight and witness where they descend. At that location, it is most likely that there is a host species.

For the most part, the association between the oxpeckers and herbivores is mutually beneficial but this relationship can degenerate to the point where oxpeckers are almost parasitic. Oxpeckers tend to irritate the edges of old wounds and scars and they often peck open surface irregularities caused by skin parasites. They do this to access the small amounts of the host's blood which in itself is not significant enough to be harmful. Oxpeckers line their nests with hair they pluck from their mammal host. Oxpeckers have short legs and very sharp claws which help the bird to cling to the fur of their hosts while they forage for parasites. They also have specially adapted tail feathers, which are stiffened and act as a manner of tripod to help prop the bird up against the bodies of their hosts.

In this area, we have two species of oxpeckers, the red-billed oxpecker, and the yellow-billed oxpecker. The most common one is the red-billed oxpecker. With their host species like impalas, that are seen on every single drive. The yellow-billed are likely to be found with large herds of buffalo and on rare occasions, with kudu.

By Evidence Nkuna
Field Guide