The Shocking Secret of the Oxpecker

Oxpeckers, a bird endemic to the savannas of sub-Saharan Africa, have recently had a moment in the limelight. Lately, there has been a great debate regarding whether they are harmless parasite eaters or are parasites themselves.

Research is being conducted to determine whether these birds are cleaners or bloodsuckers, and many ornithologists are divided on the matter. The ongoing research will, however, clarify the truths about the relationship that an oxpecker shares with its host.

More about Oxpeckers

Oxpeckers are medium-sized birds that live in sub-Saharan Africa, and there are two species that constitute the family Buphagidae. These birds are often observed sitting on the backs of mammals like hippos, elephants, zebras, and others.

The two species include yellow-billed oxpeckers, also known as Buphagus africanus, and red-billed oxpeckers, also called Buphagus erythrorhynchus.

As the name suggests, the two species of oxpeckers are distinguished based on the color of the bills. These tick birds cover their nests with the hair plucked from the animals on which they seek food. They typically lay 2 to 3 eggs in the nests they build.

Red-billled Oxpeckers

Red-billed oxpeckers are only seen in the eastern region of the area. They tend to use a scissoring motion to look for food throughout the hair of the mammal. This motion helps them find insects located in the thick, long manes of animals such as giraffes.

Yellow-billled Oxpeckers

The yellow-billed oxpeckers are larger as compared to their red cousins, and they have thicker bills. These birds use a pecking motion to pick up ticks and other parasitic insects. Yellow-billed oxpeckers are often spotted on short-haired animals like rhino and buffalo. They also search for the food inside the ears of their hosts.

The Nomenclature

Oxpeckers derive their name from their feeding habit. Both their English, as well as their scientific name, is based on how they feed. The birds sit on the backs and heads of large mammals and eats the parasites like botfly larvae and ticks. Like a woodpecker seeks food in trees and wooden structures, Oxpeckers get theirs mostly from large savanna-roaming creatures.


Symbiotic Relationship or Parasitic Relationship?

The birds sit on domestic as well as wild mammals and eat away all the parasites present in their fur. This was once considered as to be a purely symbiotic relationship. The bird gets to feed, and the mammal gets rid of the parasites inhabiting its skin. Though, as it turns out, the relationship may be a bit more complicated.

A Taste for Blood

If some scientists’ opinions are considered, the relationship between the mammal and the bird is not symbiotic but rather parasitic. It’s believed that the bird itself sucks the blood out of wounds found on their host animals. They tear open scars on these animals’ backs, thus creating a parasitic relationship between the bird and its host.

Scientists had initially believed that the oxpeckers share a symbiotic relationship with the host benefiting both the parties involved. This latest study, however, came out as a shock to many.


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