Tag Archives: Yellow-billed oxpecker

Birding Weekend at Kruger

We’ve been silent on Wilkinson’s World for a while now, but that’s only because we’ve been away having a number of adventures.  A visit to Kruger National Park is always a treat for us, and this year we were fortunate enough to be invited to a birding weekend at Satara, hosted by SANParks Honorary Rangers West Rand Region.  And what a treat it turned out to be.  Not only did the Rangers take us to places that are normally off limits to the public, but we also had expert guides telling us about the birds and animals that we saw.  The night and dawn drives were especially exciting.

Golden-tailed Woodpecker

We were well prepped before arriving at Kruger and had been given official lists of birds we were likely to see in the area at that time of the year.  Our bird count could start within a 50km radius of Satara, which meant that once we came through Orpen Gate our list was open.  Needless to say, there were birds aplenty and it took us over four hours to cover the short distance from the gate to Satara.  By the time we reached our lovely thatched rondavel we’d already seen quite a number of the summer migrants (like European Rollers, Southern Carmine and European Bee-eaters).

Yellow-billed Oxpecker

The birding around Satara is especially good and there are a couple of great bird hides and dams within easy driving distance of the camp.  We arrived a day earlier than most of the other birders, so had an afternoon and morning free to drive around on our own.  Rob and I were in our element.  I drove so that Rob could work with his camera without having a steering wheel in his way.  We are at our happiest when we’re looking for birds and animals and when the animals are obliging about having their photos taken we are delighted.

Black Crake

The S100 road to Gudzani was especially profitable and we had magnificent sightings of Southern Ground Hornbills, which are the most vulnerable of the Hornbill species.  The shrike species were well represented, as were the cuckoos – we saw Jacobin, Levaillants and Dideriek Cuckoos regularly and there were Woodland Kingfishers in abundance, their distinctive calls always letting us know of their presence.   With the aid of our expert bird guides, the next day we saw both Common and African Cuckoo’s.  We only found them because the guides heard them calling and stopped to look for them.

Jacobin Cuckoo

As I said earlier, our night drives were special.  We were mainly on the look-out for owls and nightjars and they didn’t disappoint.  Spotlights swept over the trees and ground as we drove slowly along and we soon spotted a number of night animals – African Civits, Small Spotted Genets and of course owls, nightjars, lots of thick-knees and a tiny Buttonquail.  We came across a lion fast asleep in the middle of the road – sprawled out, he was obviously enjoying the warmth of the asphalt under his body.  He didn’t even lift up his head to acknowledge our presence even though we were less than a meter away from him.  We also saw a family of Spotted Hyenas as they came out of a culvert and stalked off into the night.

Fiery-necked Nightjar

Most of us were brave enough to rise before 4.00 a.m. to be in time for the dawn chorus.  We came across a pride of lions resting in the long grass shortly before our vehicle got stuck in the mud.  It took many minutes and lots of brainpower and manpower to extricate the truck as many of us stood by, risking life and limb while the drama was playing out.  Talk about living on the edge!

Lending a helping hand

The dinners provided for the birders were excellent and it was great to be in the company of people who share one’s passion for birds and the bush.  The weekend was sponsored by a number of high profile companies, whose generous product donations were well received.  We came away with quite a haul of useful items, plus plenty of reading material about the work of the Rangers and the Eco Trainers.  All money that we spent on the weekend went to further the important work of the Honorary Rangers and we were assured that their fund-raising efforts went to where they were most needed for the betterment of the National Parks.

Woodland Kingfisher

As numbers are limited for the birding weekends with the Honorary Rangers, we will feel very privileged if we are invited to attend next year – it was certainly well worth the long drive from Durban.  From Satara Rob and I took a slow drive through the Park up to Punda Maria to see what birds we could find further north.  More about that in our next blog.

Bird of the Week – Week 126 – Yellow-billed oxpecker

Although grouped into the larger family that includes the Starlings and Mynas, oxpeckers are really rather different and have adapted well to their unusual feeding arrangements. They have strong feet with sharp claws and short legs for clinging on to the large ungulates on which they usually feed, and their bills are flattened to facilitate this feeding. Their tails are fairly long and stiff to assist in maintaining their often upright feeding positions.

Yellow-billed oxpecker

Yellow-billed oxpeckers are medium-sized birds, with a length of approximately 20 cm, and the sexes are alike in both size and plumage colouration. They have dark brown heads, throats, backs and tails, with lighter coloured under parts; eyes are red; legs and feet black; bills have a yellow base and a red tip.

Yellow-billed oxpecker

Yellow-billed oxpeckers are considered to be “Vulnerable” and their range has shrunk considerably in recent years. They prefer areas of open woodland and are restricted to those areas in which cattle and other ungulates are present. In the southern African region they are found in northern Namibia and Botswana, and in the Kruger National Park in South Africa.

They feed on ticks and blood and mucous which they garner from their hosts, but also sometimes on insects. In the Kruger Park we have seen them perched on antelope, giraffe, buffalo, hippo, and rhino, and they seem to be well tolerated by the majority of their hosts.

Yellow-billed oxpecker

Their call is a hissing “kruss, kruss”.

Yellow-billed oxpeckers are monogamous and usually nest in tree cavities which they line with grass or with hair plucked from the host animals. The female lays a clutch of two or three white eggs which hatch after an incubation period of approximately 13 days.

Yellow-billed oxpecker

The scientific binomial for the Yellow-billed oxpecker is Buphagus africanus; Buphagus from the Latin for “eater of oxen”; and africanus from the Latin for “from Africa”. Thus we have an African bird that feeds on oxen, which is a pretty good description really.

Oxpeckers – Heroes or villains?

It seems as though the jury is still out on whether the oxpecker is a hero or a villain.

It is true that the oxpecker scavenges ticks off a wide variety of the larger African mammals, which is probably a good thing, but it also picks at any wounds or sores on the host animal to keep them open and bleeding, which is probably a bad thing.  Indeed, the favourite food of the oxpecker is blood.  Many of the ticks that it feeds on are engorged females, which have already fed on the blood of the host animal, and have therefore already caused whatever harm they are likely to cause in terms of drinking blood and spreading disease.  Too late to help the host, but great for the oxpecker!  The open wounds also provide access to all manner of infections.  Although the relationship between the oxpecker and the hosts used to be considered of mutual benefit, there is a growing tendency to regard the bird as a parasite offering little benefit to the host.

Yellow-billed oxpecker on a domestic ox

There are two varieties of oxpeckers found in the southern African region – the Red-billed oxpecker and the Yellow-billed oxpecker.

Red-billed oxpecker

Red-billed oxpeckers (Buphagus erythrorhynchus) are medium-sized passerines, with a length of about 20 cm.  They have brown upperparts and heads, buff underparts and pale rumps.  Their bills are red, the eyes are red or yellowish and they have yellow eye rings.  They nest in holes in trees, which they line with the hair that they have plucked from their hosts.  The females lay a clutch of two to five eggs, which hatch after an incubation period of around twelve days.

Red-billed oxpecker on a young impala

Yellow-billed oxpeckers (Buphagus africanus) are very similar in size and plumage colouration to the Red-billed variety, but have a yellow base to their red-tipped bill and a pale rump.  They also lack the conspicuous yellow eye ring.  Breeding habits are similar.

Yellow-billed oxpecker on a domestic ox

Sinners or saints, the oxpeckers are interesting little birds.  They feed almost exclusively on the backs of larger mammals, not limiting themselves to a diet of ticks and blood, but also taking dead skin (finally a use for dandruff!!), mucus, saliva and even ear wax.

On a recent visit to the Kruger National Park in South Africa we witnessed Red-billed oxpeckers making themselves at home on a variety of different species.  Some hosts appeared almost indifferent to their presence, whilst others tried actively to unsettle the birds by flicking their ears, swishing their tails, stamping their feet or generally making it difficult for them to retain their perches.  The oxpeckers, for their part, seemed oblivious to the discomfort that they wrought as they pecked into the host’s ears (after that ear wax!) or perched on the host’s face.

Red-billed oxpecker on an impala

Few of the larger animals seemed immune to the oxpecker’s attentions and they even settled on hippos as they emerged from the water.

Red-billed oxpecker on an impala