Ubuntu: I am because of you …

The concept of Ubuntu lies at the very core of the first cultures to establish themselves in Southern Africa, referring to humanity and how one person is because of someone else or a group.

Working in the bush I’ve learnt so many lessons from nature, some of which are extremely evident, whilst others require one to look a little deeper to see what’s being taught. One of the lessons I’ve learnt and been exposed to on a daily basis is the spirit of Ubuntu.

I see Ubuntu in many different things out in the bush, from the simplicity of an elephant eating a tree and then transporting some of the seeds to a new destination through its dung, to the more intricate fig wasp, which is the size of a match head, being the only pollinator of a massive fig tree. All these things need each other to exist, being completely reliant on the existence of the other to survive, and therefore are because of each other. There are more than likely hundreds more examples that I can rattle off about but there is one in particular that I always love to see…


A group of red-billed oxpeckers feed on ticks on the neck of a giraffe. The oxpeckers feast on the blood-filled ticks for nourishment and inadvertently help the giraffe by removing the bothersome parasites.

Watching a dazzle of zebra or a journey of giraffe, which is quite spectacular on its own, there is also often something else interesting going on which tends to go unnoticed by us observers. If you look carefully you’ll notice at any given time there is usually a little bird, or group of birds, sitting on the animals. This bird is the oxpecker. Often laughed at and thought to be catching a free ride, these birds are doing so much more than just this. What the bird is actually doing is cleaning the animal of the parasites that are living off of it. Most times their main targets are the ticks that have made their way onto the hides of the unsuspecting animal. One may say that the bird has no clue how much it is helping the giraffe or zebra and that it is merely just feeding itself but nevertheless it is helping to perform some very important functions. By pulling the parasites off they’re helping to clean the animals, often in places they can’t reach themselves and more than likely preventing them from picking up diseases that these ticks may carry. Most of an oxpeckers diet is made up of ticks (primarily the blood found in the ticks), and therefore relies on the animals to feed. Without the animal hosting the tick, the oxpecker would have to hunt for its food, more than likely not being as successful and possibly affecting the success of the species as a whole. The parasite carrying animal on the other hand also has no idea of the important function it’s serving for the birds, when it actual fact it is behaving like a sort of mobile buffet.


When not feeding, the oxpeckers will roost in a tree, usually in a group.


Although this giraffe doesn’t seem too perturbed by all the oxpeckers feeding off his face, neck and head they can get a bit agitated at times. This tends to happen when the oxpeckers try to feed in the ears or drink fluid from the nostrils or eyes.


Young and old oxpeckers will feed together, here a juvenile gets a meal from an adult. The juvenile is easily recognisable by the dark beak.


Sometimes oxpeckers will even use the hide of the animal as a surface to rest on. Here an oxpecker sunbathes on a rhino as it feeds in the mid-morning sun.

One may argue that these animals have no idea what effect they have on each other, and you’re probably right, but the way I see it just by these animals being themselves and behaving in the manner most natural to them, they end up working together and essentially strengthening the survival of the system as a whole.  Everything is connected and as John Muir says, “when you tug at a single thing in the universe, you find it is attached to everything else”.

Filed under Birds Wildlife

About the Author

Kevin Power

Field Guide

Kevin hails from the small town of George, but we try not to hold that against him... After obtaining a Bachelor of Commerce degree in Finance at the University of Stellenbosch, Kev realised that town life wasn't for him for the moment, and ...

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on The Important Lesson an Oxpecker Taught Me

Join the conversationJoin the conversation

Marg Guit

Your images so beautifully support your insights here. Thank you. 😊

Wendy Hawkins

Thank you Kevin, that is not only very interesting, but your pictures accompanying the article are beautiful, especially the header at the top <3

Judy B.

Great blog, Kevin. Isn’t the universe amazing?

Senior Moment

Beautiful photos, I have always wanted a decent ox-pecker photo

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