Believe it or not, there are birds who run a mobile cleaning and grooming service for animals in the bush. Red-billed oxpeckers, as they are called do just that. The birds literally travel on animals from warthog, impala, and kudu to buffalo rhino and giraffe and clean their fur of unwanted skin parasites and ticks.

The mighty elephant disdains this service, preferring to douse himself with mud and scrape off the little nasties with the dried mud on a convenient tree. I got a few pix of the birds working on a large client, a giraffe, and was able to see them work first hand.

Most animals love the attention and allow these birds access to all parts of the body, including eyelids and nostrils at times.

There are two kinds of oxpeckers. Red-billed and yellow billed. The red billed have serrations on their lower bill to help them comb out the nits and the ticks from their hosts. These birds are welcome on all animals, thick and thin skinned. So impala kudu warthog etc would welcome them but not their rather more intrusive brethren the yellow billed oxpeckers. These birds use their sharp beaks to dig out the ticks and that can hurt the thin skinned animals and so they stick to giraffe, buffalo and rhino for the most part. Their propensity for only feeding on thick skinned animals almost led to their extinction. When there were cattle ranches using Tick Medicine in the vicinity of Kruger Park, these birds used to perform the same service for the cattle on those ranches and used to get poisoned regularly by the anti-tick medicine used on cattle. Their numbers are coming up now but very slowly.

Yellow-billed oxpeckers on buffalos.

There is another very useful service that these birds provide. They are the extra eyes and ears of the large game which are often targets of lions. The birds are their early warning system that something is not right and so the buffalo can relax a little knowing that their feathered friends will give the alarm in case of danger or intruders.

These guys even build and line their nest with the hair of their clientele but there is a dark side to them as well. They are one of the only birds who feed almost exclusively on blood and blood sucking insects and so when their host has a wound they make the most of the easy pickings and sometimes delay healing by weeks. That makes them parasites instead of being a support to the animal. It’s a switchover from Mutualism to parasitism, in the symbiotic relationship. All in all a fascinating concept, bird barbers!