The Oxpecker

by | Aug 3, 2022 | Monthly Rangers Blog, News

Kayleigh Rose Humphries


It’s an Oxpecker life!

Have you ever seen little birds on an animal before and wondered what kind of birds it was, why they were there, or what they were busy doing? Also, what impact does it have on the animal it sits on?

What are oxpeckers?

Oxpeckers are birds that come from the family of Buphagidae. There are two types of oxpeckers. The Red-Billed oxpeckers and the Yellow-Billed oxpeckers. The similar Red-billed Oxpecker differs from Yellow-billed Oxpecker by having a red bill, a yellow eye-wattle and a dark rump, the same colour as the remainder of the upper parts. These birds are beneficial to the animals of the bushveld, as well as the humans who enjoy their walks through the African bushveld.

About oxpeckers 

Oxpeckers are birds that spend their days feasting on ticks and parasites that live on herbivores. This relationship is known as mutualistic symbiosis. That means that both parties benefit from this friendship. Oxpeckers get some good grub, while the herbivores are left tick and parasite free.

Sweetveld is normally palatable and nutritious and it will remain with its nutritional value throughout all the stages of growth in its mature stage. It will have the same nutritional value during every season throughout the year. When the grass is young the level of nutrition will be at its highest.  In this area, if the grass is over grazed, the area will get damaged and will lose its value.

Grass in the sweetveld area can be grazed in the dry season and is going to be most likely where you will find most grazing animals during the winter months in the lowveld.

Grazers that you are most likely to see will include impala (Aepyceros melampus), buffalo (Syncerus caffer), zebra (Equus quagga) and White Rhino (Ceratotherium simum) blue wildebeest (Connochaetes taurinus).

An oxpecker

An oxpecker

Herbivores benefit 

From the smallest herbivores such as the warthog and impala to the largest herbivores such as the Cape buffalo and White rhino.  All benefit from having their coats plundered of blood-sucking invertebrates. Blood loss caused by ticks and other parasites may cause a lack of energy. Out in the bushveld, having a large amount of energy is very important to survival. Without the necessary energy, herbivores find it harder to live day-to-day life, defending themselves, grazing and running away from predators.

Oxpeckers do not manage to take off every single tick or parasite. However, they do take enough of them off to control the infestations to a large degree, preventing a flood of high loads into the environment where a secondary infestation could have potentially occurred.

Not only do the oxpeckers keep herbivores clean, they can also warn herbivores of any potential threat nearby. Birds are more aware of their surroundings and can pick up on danger faster than most animals. If they feel threatened, they will fly away in a hurry. Their warning calls give herbivores a heads up to potential danger looming nearby.

Although there are a lot of positive attributes to this friendship, there could also be a slightly negative effect. These birds tend to pick at old wounds and scars, which might lead to scars and wounds on herbivores opening up again. Having an open wound might put the host at risk of secondary infection and this could cause the host to become weaker.

Oxpeckers on a warthog

Oxpeckers on a warthog

Oxpeckers Nest

Not only do oxpeckers feed off of herbivores, they also obtain hair from them to build a comfortable, cosy nest. They place the hair on top of blades of grass in a cup shape, which later becomes more flattened. It does not stop just there. Any cracks in the nest are filled by dung from their hosts. The nests are built in tree cavities. An entire flock will locate a specific cavity and inspect and approve it together. They will utilize this cavity for years to come.

Oxpeckers are cooperative breeders, which means only one pair will do the breeding. They will use the back of their host to do the mating. Only the dominant male and female oxpeckers would incubate the eggs, whilst the rest of the flock, known as the helpers, help feed the brood and remove unwanted objects such as eggshells and faecal sacs. All the members of the flock are related and kinship selection ensures that the individual’s gene line stays preserved.

Oxpeckers usually tend to avoid primates as well as carnivores. They also stay clear of the beautiful African elephant. This is because elephants do not tolerate their presence. Elephants will use their tails, ears and truck to chase the oxpeckers away.

Oxpeckers picking at an open wound

Oxpeckers picking at an open wound

Next time you are on a safari, be on the lookout for oxpeckers on the following animals:

Cape Buffalo, White rhino, zebra, impala, kudu, giraffe, warthog and many other herbivores.

Keep an eye out for our weekly blog posts. We have insightful and interesting topics to keep you busy while planning your next safari adventure! Hope to see you out on game drive soon!

Kayleigh Humphries

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