The Red-billed Oxpecker rids Giraffes, impala and cattle of ticks, and uses their hosts as perches for displaying, mating, and as a source of nest material. Up to 60 or more birds visit single cattle enclosures every morning and smaller afternoon groups visit livestock, rhinos, buffalo and other herbivores in the wildest patches of East Africa.
By Rex Graham
Oxpeckers are often called Tickbirds for their habit of hitching rides on the tick-infested areas on the backs and necks of all large East African herbivores. In South Africa, 1,666 ticks were found in the stomach of one Oxpecker at Kruger National Park. However, Red-billed and the less frequent Yellow-billed Oxpeckers also eat dead skin, mucus, saliva, blood, sweat and tears.
Tick-eating Red-billed Oxpecker likes blood, sweat and tears
Ticks are noxious parasites of large African mammals. After a painful bite, a tick fills with blood, sometimes spreading disease in the process. Brown Ear Ticks, Bont Ticks, Red-legged Ticks, Bont-legged Ticks and others have larva, nymph and adult stages, and attach to a different individual anima for each one – attaching, filling with blood, dropping off, and metamorphosing to the next stage. Blue Ticks complete their life cycle on one animal.
Oxpeckers are thought to be a terrestrial symbiotic version of the cleaner fish of coral reefs. Host fish periodically visit small areas of reef called cleaning stations to have the parasite-removal service. However, one study found that domestic cattle have about the same number of ticks whether they are “cleaned” by Oxpeckers or not.
South America has its own tickbirds. In Brazil, the Yellow?headed Caracara removes ticks from domestic and wild herbivorous mammal. Black Vultures have been video-taped removing ticks from reclining Capybaras in southeast Brazil.
Red-billed Oxpecker’s Services Not Always Welcomed
However, the tick-removal services of Red-billed Oxpeckers may not always be welcomed. Some ornithologists say Oxpeckers will occasionally spend the majority of their feeding time pecking at the exposed raw tissue of animals, ignoring nearby ticks.
Elephants are rarely visited by Oxpeckers. Cape Buffalo appear oblivious to Red-billed and Yellow-billed Oxpeckers; however, Waterbuck and Impala have been seen using a variety of vigorous “resistance behaviours” that shed Oxpeckers.
Oxpeckers use their bills to “scissor” through hair, possibly as a way to feed on dead skin. They use animals as platforms at waterholes to drink water. The surface of Hippos above the waterline is used to foraged and perch for a drink.