Friends with benefits: taking a ride with an oxpecker

It’s a common sight: a small bird with a bright red beak is taking a ride on a zebra. It might be perched on its neck or riding between its ears. The zebra doesn’t seem to mind and the bird seems to be having fun. With good reason.

Bed and breakfast

The bird, which is an oxpecker, is not just hitching a lift; it’s having a free lunch. The main course might be ticks, the side-dishes might feature blood-sucking flies, fleas or lice. The starters will include earwax, saliva, eye mucous, sweat and blood.

The zebra is also providing accommodation – a safe place for an afternoon nap and a cosy spot in which to spend the night. Oxpeckers also like to mate while on the hoof and, when the young ones come, zebra fur makes the ideal nest-liner.

The oxpecker’s early warning system

All of this suits the zebra just fine. Its average daily grooming time is drastically reduced. And, thanks to the services of a super-efficient parasite-killer, it can remain strong, healthy and attractive to potential mates. The oxpecker is also a professional when it comes to knowing exactly where to peck, which just happens to be behind the zebra’s ears – where it can’t reach – and where the parasites are at their thickest. Finally, should the zebra get into a fight, the oxpecker will clean the wound thus preventing both bacterial infection and blow-fly infestation. Fights, however, are discouraged by the oxpecker, which offers a world-class early-warning system. Perched high on the zebra’s neck, it surveys the bush for likely threats and, when it spots one, it shrieks, hisses and flies up into the air. It’s not subtle, but it works – especially with lions.

oxpecker and buffalo
An oxpecker grooming an African Buffalo in the Masai Mara

The oxpecker is built for the job

None of this happens by accident. The oxpecker, which comes in two varieties, the red-billed (Buphagus erythrorynchus) and the yellow-billed (Buphagus africanus) has been specially adapted for the job. Its bill is sharply pointed and can scissor its way through the zebra’s coat yanking out embedded parasites as it goes. It has short, jockey-like legs with sharp claws that enable it to remain in the saddle whatever the pace; and its short, stiff tail ensures perfect balance – even over jumps.

It is also relaxed when it comes to the choice of ride. Rhinos, kudus, giraffes, hippos and buffaloes are all acceptable. In fact recent research has revealed that groups of Tanzanian oxpeckers have taken to hanging upside down in the armpits of giraffe overnight.

Dark rumours

The relationship between the oxpecker and its various hosts has always been referred to as mutualism because it was thought that the benefits to bird and beast were mutual. Lately, however, dark rumours have begun to circulate and the oxpecker is being accused of vampirism. It shouldn’t come as a surprise. The oxpecker’s official name, Buphagus, means ‘eater of ox’.


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