Oxpeckers get their name from their habit of picking ticks off the bodies of medium and large sized herbivores such as buffalo, antelope, zebra and rhino; which is where they also get their Afrikaans name Renostervoëltjie (“rhino bird”). The smallest animal an oxpecker will associate with is a warthog. Interestingly, the waterbuck cannot stand oxpeckers and will often run into bushes to rid themselves of the birds.
Apart from cleaning off ticks, oxpeckers also serve as a warning system for herbivores due to their keen eyesight (birds have 1 million retinal cells versus the mammals’ 150,000). All animals are vigilante for the alarm calls of oxpeckers, especially the rhino that has very poor eyesight.
Oxpeckers have long claws which help them cling onto fur, and stiffened tail feathers which prop them up like a tripod during their ‘typewriter-like’ feeding during which a scissor-like occluding bill is employed to great effect.
During hours of patient grooming throughout the day, these birds can harvest an impressive 100 engorged adult ticks or well into the 1000’s of minute tick larvae. The impact of these parasites on their hosts is quite significant in terms of blood loss and blood borne bacterial and viral diseases. Well-groomed, healthier, stronger animals will not only escape from danger more readily but feed more intensively and are more likely to compete successfully for territories and/or mates.
Oxpeckers not only benefit from a food source perspective from their symbiotic relationships with herbivores, but also further incorporate their hosts into their everyday lives by often utilizing them as a courtship arena for displays; as an occasional mating platform; as well as a coveted source of nesting material in the form of the animal host’s fur! This they use to line their nests in carefully selected tree holes, which are tended by a cooperatively breeding group – an adult pair and around 5-10 helpers.
Oxpeckers are always great subjects to watch and photograph, whether sitting in comical positions on their hosts such as in the middle of buffalo’s boss; inside a rhino’s ear; scurrying down a giraffe’s neck to join their host as it bends down to drink or simply proving a persistent nuisance to a ticklish impala!
By ranger Jamie Sangster