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The oxpecker

21 November 2013

 

www.leopard.tvAt one time the oxpeckers all but disappeared in the wild due to the injudicious use of harmful acaricides, but populations have been re-established in many regions. There are two species of oxpecker in southern Africa, the yellow-billed one Buphagus africanus and the red-billed one Buphagus erythrorynchus. In distribution the yellow-billed oxpecker was historically limited to the extreme north-eastern parts of South Africa while the red-billed oxpecker occurred more further south, west and east in South Africa. They both, however, occur further north in southern Africa. The red-billed oxpecker also occurs elsewhere in central and eastern Africa but the yellow-billed oxpecker only occurs in southern Africa. The specific epithet africanus is Latin and means to come from Africa while erythrorynchus is Greek and means red-billed.

The two species of oxpecker look almost identical but the beak of the yellow-billed oxpecker has a yellow base and its eyes are surrounded by a large yellow spot. In the red-billed oxpecker this yellow spot is much smaller and the beak is entirely red, while its rump is not paler in colour than the rest of the body as in the yellow-billed oxpecker. Both types of oxpecker have dark, forked tails which they use to support themselves when sitting on the flank of a host mammal where they will seek blood, mucus or ticks to eat. In doing so, they penetrate the body cavities, eyes and the ears of their hosts without being disturbed. Oxpeckers occur on many types of wildlife and they use their scissor-like beaks to pluck off ectoparasites. They also catch flying insects and clean out wounds by pecking away any dead tissue. A single oxpecker can eat some 1655 ticks or tick nymphs per day.

Both species of oxpecker are monogamous breeders and solitary nesters while helpers assist in feeding the chicks. The nest is usually a hole in a tree trunk which is lined with grass and hair which is plucked from the host mammals. Oval eggs that are whilte with a reddish speckling are laid in the hot wet season by the yellow-billed oxpecker, while those of the red-billed oxpecker are creamy white and are covered in fine red-brown to lilac speckles. The yellow-billed oxpecker lays 2 to 3 eggs and the red-billed one 2 to 5 at a time. The incubation period in both species is around 13 days. The hatchlings of the yellow-billed oxpecker have an orange-coloured skin with grey plumes along the middle of the back, while those of the red-billed oxpecker have a bare, pink-coloured skin with a few grey plumes. The nestlings of the yellow-billed oxpecker stay in the nest for around 25 days and those of the red-billed oxpecker for around 30 days.

 

Reference:

Hockey, P A R, W R J Dean and P G Ryan (eds) 2005. Roberts – birds of southern Africa, seventh edition. Cape Town: The John Voelcker Bird Book Fund, pp 973 – 974.

article by: Prof J du P Bothma

 

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