The red-billed oxpecker is a common bird throughout Kenya and sub-Saharan Africa. A member of the same family as the starling and myna, it is a chattering gregarious bird found atop mammals.
Oxpeckers are the only creature in the world whose exclusive function is to glean mammals. They feed on the ticks that inhabit the mammal. Ticks thrive on moisture and warmth, and with the unrelenting sun beating down on the African beasts, these mammals are the unfortunate hosts to dozens and dozens of ticks. The oxpecker feeds on the blood that is engorged in the ticks; eats as many as 100 ticks a day. You will find them on many different four-legged ungulates (antelope, giraffe, zebra, etc.), especially those with manes. There is also a yellow-billed oxpecker in Africa, but it is not as prevalent as the red-billed, featured here.
The short, sharp claws and long, stiff tail of Buphagus erythrorhynchus enable them to cling to the mammal, even while the mammal is walking. You can see from this Sable photograph how well the bird can cling to various body parts. In addition, the bird’s bill is laterally flattened and has a sharp cutting edge for handling the ticks.
Often this relationship between the tick-infested mammal and the oxpecker is mutually beneficial. The bird eats the ticks off the mammal and rids it of an irritating infestation, the mammal supplies the bird with an endless smorgasbord. But sometimes an oxpecker will dig beyond the tick and intentionally keep the animal’s wound open to directly extract blood, because ultimately it is the blood on which the bird thrives.
Occasionally you might see the mammal swat its tail or shake its head to get rid of an exceptionally annoying oxpecker. However mostly what you see, as you ride across the endless grassy plains looking for African wildlife, is the mammal grazing and the oxpecker feeding, and both are peaceably living in harmony.
Photo credit: Athena Alexander