The red-billed oxpecker (Buphagus erythrorhynchus) is native to the savannah of Sub-Saharan Africa. It ranges across Ethiopia and Somalia through Kenya, Tanzania, Malawi and Zambia into Southern Africa, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Southern Mozambique, and North-Eastern South Africa.
They are a bulbul-sized, olive-brown bird that sports a diagnostic all red bill and a red eye surrounded by a fleshy yellow wattle. Note that the juvenile lacks the bright bill and eye coloration.
Now this is a fairly common bird and if you are a safari lover, this chirpy little feathered creature's call should be one you must know. I say this because the red-billed oxpecker is one of our early alarm systems. This goes for both the mammals that roam the wilds of Africa and for the folk visiting the reserves they are found in.
The alarm that cannot be mistaken once pointed out, comes in a form of a mid-tone raspy, rattling, “tsik-tsik” like chirp. Now this chirp is a tool for us as humans to benefit from when exploring the wilds of Africa. The reason for this is that it usually tells us that there is potentially an animal or herd of animals in the area.
Lets dive into the day of the red-billed oxpecker…
After the sun breaks, these early risers will take some time to warm up in the sun just outside the nesting area. Once warm enough, they make their way high up into the sky in search of their various hosts. This could be anything ranging from a warthog, through to the various antelope species and up to the larger mammals such as giraffe, buffalo, hippo and rhino.
Once a potential host is located, they fall out the sky like a falling stone and land on whatever species they have come across. 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 the scissor-like occluding bill is employed to great effect. They will spend most of their active hours in small groups moving from one host to another all in search of food. In my opinion, their go-to meal is not the most appetizing and this comes in the form of blood filled ticks.
As disgusting as this sounds, it serves as a vital part to ensure a happy, healthy and sustainable ecosystem. These blood thirsty birds have formed; what we refer to as, a symbiotic relationship with African mammal species. This is a close relationship between two species in which at least one species benefits. In the case of an oxpecker and any mammal it chooses to land on, a mutualism symbiotic relationship is formed and this is where both species will benefit.
Benefits to the red-billed oxpecker;
The red-billed oxpecker will benefit in many ways, one being a continent way of finding food. It’s believed that an adult will take nearly 100 blood-engorged female ticks, or more than 12,000 larvae in a day. However, their preferred food is blood, and while they may take ticks bloated with blood, they also feed on it directly, pecking at the mammal's wounds to keep them open. Initially this is a good thing as they can assist in cleaning out the wound but it which could lead to infection if the wound is continuously reopened.
A second benefit to the bird is that by hitching a ride on a mammal they have found an easier and more energy sufficient way to move around.
Thanks to their shorter legs and adapted grip, they can also drink water from a much safer point, the host itself.
Lastly, they 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 host’s fur used to line and insulate their nests.
Benefits to the host species;
Their feathered friends help them rid many external parasites on a daily basis. They receive pretty much free, effortless grooming while filling their own bellies.
Mammals will receive an early alarm system if the bird picks up on a potential threat.
And for all we know, the mammal may have a buddy to chat to at intervals throughout the day. You just never know…
Now after a long day of chit chat and feeding, the birds bid farewell to their fury friends. Then make their way to the nest well before the sun sets, enjoy the last bit of heat before settling in for the night.
This is the day to day of the red-billed oxpecker.
I do hope that this blog has not only taught you something new but that it has also encouraged you to spend more time with these fascinating birds. Photograph them, learn from them, study them, learn their call and in turn use these early alarms to your advantage on your future endeavors into Africa.
Until next time;