One afternoon a few of us rangers went out to go and look for a large herd of buffalo that have been spending quite a lot of time in the southern, more open grassland areas of Londolozi. It didn’t take us long to spot the hundreds of tracks and furrows through the grass leading towards a very prominent watering hole in the distance. We looped around on the road to get there quickly, and as we had hoped – there they were! It’s always entertaining sitting with a large herd of buffalo, watching and discussing all the different interactions between the different individuals. This afternoon however, the topic of discussion had to do with a much smaller, but very interesting detail of the herd.
Often when you come across a herbivore such as an impala, zebra, or wildebeest you will happen to see a small brown bird sitting on them or clambering around their bodies. These birds are known as oxpeckers, more specifically red-billed oxpeckers. They are generally quite common birds to see and their call is rather distinct, especially to those who do a lot of trail walks in big game areas. Their call is enough to alert us to the presence of animals and in particular rhino or buffalo. Oxpeckers mainly feed on ticks and other ectoparasites that are found on the bodies of wild animals. On the contrary to the common, red-billed oxpecker, there is another type of oxpecker that is seldom seen – the yellow-billed oxpecker.
The reason for the yellow-billed oxpecker being quite rare is that you are more likely to see them around a large herd of buffalo rather than the smaller herbivores like impala. They have slightly more body mass than their red-billed relatives and therefore prefer animals with a larger surface area because this means more ticks and parasites to sustain their slightly denser body mass. This way they are able to gorge themselves in one area as opposed to flying between smaller herds of animals in search of food.
It was also thought that in the early 1900’s they were extinct as a breeding species in South Africa, due to the cape buffalo and other large herbivore populations being drastically reduced by the Rinderpest virus. This virus killed more than 5.2 million cattle as well as domestic sheep, goats and wild populations of buffalo, giraffe, and wildebeest in southern Africa. The first record of breeding was only later in 1985.
So next time you are out in the bush and you have the opportunity to be in and amongst a large herd of buffalo, be sure to look out for these impressive birds. Let me know if you’ve seen the yellow-billed oxpecker in the comments below…