The Oxpecker

The Oxpecker

The word “Symbiosis” is derived from the Greek word for ‘living together’. It essentially refers to a long-term interaction between different biological organisms. Basically, it means that there is some form of relationship between two species – either beneficial or parasitic by nature. 

There are two local species of oxpeckers that live in association with many species of herbivores, from the mighty buffalo to the warthog. They spend their days harvesting and consuming parasites off their hosts in a win-win relationship known as mutualistic symbiosis. Both species involved gain several advantages from their relationship.

The herbivores benefit greatly by having the bloodsucking parasites removed. Blood loss due to parasites results in a loss of energy for the animal. This eventually puts them at a disadvantage when it comes to procreating, avoiding being eaten, or general day-to-day activities. The oxpeckers have adapted to occupy a niche where this food is readily available – without competition.

Oxpeckers are also an early warning system. These birds are, as a rule, more vigilant than the larger animals, flying up noisily, hissing and rasping characteristically when startled. This warns their hosts too, which is obviously a huge advantage. 

By being aware of where oxpeckers fly up or descend, or taking note of their easily recognizable rasping call, humans can avoid a potential encounter with a dangerous animal such as a buffalo.

As a rule, the relationship between oxpeckers and their hosts is mutually beneficial. However, sometimes it verges on being parasitic. Oxpeckers are ‘sanguinivores’, which means that blood makes up a large part of their diet. They will irritate the edges of a wound that is healing, or peck open new wounds / enhance existing ones where surface imperfections were left by the parasites. This keeps the wounds open and susceptible to secondary infections, which is a disadvantage to the hosts.

An oxpeckers short legs and very sharp claws help the birds cling to the fur of their chosen animal as they feed on the parasites. Their tail feathers are stiff and are used like a tripod to help prop the bird up against the animal on which they are feeding. Their bill (laterally compressed and pointed) is combed through the fur, and they locate the parasites by opening and closing the mandibles in cycles called ‘scissoring’. Sometimes, as with egrets, they will hawk flying insects close to the mammal they are on.

Oxpeckers were once numerous in South Africa. However, when their host species numbers are reduced, so too will the oxpeckers decline in numbers. The dipping of cattle (to reduce ticks) causes serious issues as the oxpeckers are then obviously ingesting the poisons – forcing their numbers even lower…

The presence of oxpeckers on large mammals is effectively an indicator of the health of the ecosystem – and it is our duty to try and protect them as much as possible by trying to find alternatives to the poisons which are so indiscriminately used…

Jacqui Ikin & The Cross  Country Team

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