At Londolozi, one can find approximately 353 species of birds. Some of these arrive in the summertime when the first rains fall and the bush becomes a paradise of colours and a cacophony of sounds! Two of these species found at Londolozi year round are oxpeckers. These little birds play a vitally important role in the eco-system but to understand why, we need to look at their habits and adaptations…

I don’t think there is any other bird that receives as many questions as the oxpecker. ‘What are those birds doing on the animal?’ ‘What are they eating?’ ‘Do they not bother the animal?’ All very valid questions. To get to know these birds you should know a bit about their habitat… . In the South African lowveld or Bushveld as its known, we find two species of oxpeckers. The red-billed and the yellow-billed oxpecker. At one stage the yellow-billed oxpecker was thought to be extinct. Only a handful of these birds were still found in the Pafuri region of Northern Kruger National Park. They miraculously survived and have re-established themselves in the Greater Kruger area. Oxpeckers frequently occur in areas where host species such as impala, zebra, rhino and buffalo to name a few are found. These birds rely heavily on these hosts as a food source. Oxpeckers feed on ticks, insects and other parasites that unbeknownst to the human eye exist on these animals. Has anyone ever noticed how clean and groomed an impala always seems to be? Sure they do groom themselves, but oxpeckers can potentially rid them of approximately 35 – 40% of their parasites!

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A very rare sighting of a yellow-billed oxpecker shouting in excitement at the collection of ticks he has found on this buffalo’s ears. Photographed by: Amy Attenborough

Rearranging the surroundings; this Red-billed Oxpecker stalls to look in our direction before getting back to combing through a Buffalo’s coat. Photographed by: Sean Cresswell

A Red-billed Oxpecker stalls to look in our direction before getting back to combing through a Buffalo’s coat. Photographed by: Sean Cresswell

The oxpecker and its various hosts form such a close symbiotic relationship with one another that they eventually become totally reliant on each other. The oxpecker gets its food from the impala and the impala’s chances of contracting a life threatening disease decreases significantly. Oxpeckers boast impressively strong legs and claws which enables them to hold onto their hosts even at the most perilous angle!

A red-billed oxpecker combs through the coat of a giraffe helping to rid the giraffe of ticks. Photographed by Amy Attenborough

A red-billed oxpecker combs through the coat of a giraffe helping to rid the giraffe of ticks. Photographed by Amy Attenborough

The four tenors – red-billed oxpeckers. Photographed by Paul Gold

The four tenors – red-billed oxpeckers. Photographed by Paul Gold

The major difference between the two is found in their feeding habits, the yellow-billed has a strong bill which it uses to pluck parasites from the coat of the animal where the red-billed oxpecker uses its thinner sharper bill to move in scissor-like movements through the coat.

Not the greatest photo, but if one looks closely, you can see a rare yellow-billed oxpecker in the middle of it’s red-billed cousins. Perched on the back of a white rhino, we were delighted to see this bird who is hardly ever encountered at Londolozi. Photographed by James Tyrrell

If one looks closely, you can see a rare yellow-billed oxpecker in the middle of it’s red-billed cousins. Perched on the back of a white rhino, we were delighted to see this bird who is hardly ever encountered at Londolozi. Photographed by James Tyrrell

Sometimes when an animal has an open wound, these birds can potentially become a hazard. We had an encounter with a buffalo on a recent game drive where the buffalo had an open wound and the oxpeckers were very focused on this area. The buffalo tried to shake the oxpeckers the whole time by swiftly moving its legs from side to side. He managed but eventually submitted and the oxpeckers continued cleaning this area until blood proceeded to trickle out. This opened another argument of whether the oxpeckers actually prolong the healing of animals that might have scars or injuries? And the answer is yes. However these birds will constantly clean the wounded area until it recovers –it just takes a little while longer.

A redbilled oxpecker enjoying a free ride from its buffalo host. Photographed by Harry Ryan.

A redbilled oxpecker enjoying a free ride from its buffalo host. Photographed by Harry Ryan.

A hippo bull rests while a red-billed oxpecker shouts noisily from his back. These oxpeckers will often use the hippos as platforms from which they can drink. Photographed by Amy Attenborough

A hippo bull rests while a red-billed oxpecker shouts noisily from his back. These oxpeckers will often use the hippos as platforms from which they can drink. Photographed by Amy Attenborough

Oxpeckers are also the ‘neighbourhood watch’ of the bush! If there is danger around, these little birds will give a rattling call to alert the host species that danger is encroaching. I remember in my early days as a guide being taught that when one hears oxpeckers, chances are, there is either a predator or the possibility of a high-profile animal such as a rhino around.

In the bush, it is all being aware of what is going on around you… When one goes out on drive, the faintest of sounds or even the call of an oxpecker can pinpoint you to what could potentially be a sighting of a lifetime. On the next game drive, sit down and let your senses take over, listen, hear and smell the bush. It might surprise you how much you will see by simply looking around.

Written by: Werner Breedt, Londolozi Game Ranger  
Filmed by James Tyrrell and Rich Laburn

Filed under Life Wildlife

About the Author

Werner Breedt

Field Guide

Werner came to Londolozi already well versed in the ways of the bush, having guided at Rock Fig lodge to the north of us. Although his Afrikaans accent can be difficult to understand at times, as is his continued support of the Blue ...

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6 Comments

on The Neighbourhood Watch of the Bush: Why the Oxpecker Plays Such A Vital Role in Our Eco-system
    Marinda Drake says:

    Great blog Werner. Interesting facts. I did not know that the beaks of the oxpeckers differ. Awesome to see these birds in the bush and very special to see a yellow billed oxpecker.

    Werner says:

    Thank you Marinda! I agree, a yellow billed oxpecker is literally the equivalent of seeing a pangolin. They are very rare and a treat to watch!

    Eleta says:

    Yet a great blog. Werner how you bring nature into our homes. Thank you!

    Jill Grady says:

    Very interesting blog Werner. It’s fascinating how the Oxpecker can rid animals of up to 40% of their parasites. The pictures and video are fantastic as well!

    Werner says:

    Impeccable little groomers! Essential to all of life in the eco system!

    Wendy Hawkins says:

    You answered the question I was going to ask, so thank you Werner! It is so amazing that if “humans” just left the animals to be just that, there would be peace, but GREED prevails!!! :'(

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