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!
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!
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.
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.
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