There are two species of oxpecker, the yellow-billed and the red-billed. The Yellow-billed Oxpecker (image 1) is the more common of the two in Kenya.
Both species, also called tickbirds, have olive-brown or grey-brown bodies, wide bills, stiff tails and sharp claws. They cling to cattle and big-game animals to remove ticks, flies, and maggots from their hides. When alarmed, the birds hiss, alerting their hosts to possible danger. Though they rid animals of pests, oxpeckers also take blood from the sores, which may be slow to heal.
The oxpecker populations have been adversely impacted by relentless poisoning, but they live in such a wide range across Africa that they have not approached the classification of Vulnerable.
The Curious Case of the Giraffe and the Oxpecker
Oxpeckers are commonly seen riding along on large mammals while they search their hosts for ticks or open wounds. What’s not so common are the camera-trap images of giraffes at night with these birds using them as movable roosting spots. It is thought that this habit is an adaptation to save the birds time looking for the right animal the following day.
Night images of giraffes show that yellow-billed oxpeckers seem to prefer settling between the hind legs of the giraffe. This may be because it’s a warm spot in winter and keeps them safe from any nocturnal predators.
*Why feature the Oxpecker?
This week’s posts have a sort of Giraffe Week feel to them. Oxpeckers, having a rather important connection to giraffes, fit the theme.