Red-billed oxpeckers are not uncommon in Zululand, South Africa but the declining numbers of the blood-eating birds are being addressed before they reach vulnerable status on the IUCN Red Data List.

Ticks, larvae, and blood form the oxpecker diet

The feisty little birds sometimes called “tick-birds,” are recognized by some ornithologists to be in their own family – the Buphagidae, but they are recognized generally as belonging to the Starling and Myna families. They eat blood and this is most often found in engorged ticks that infest cattle and wild mammals.

A single bird can consume a hundred ticks a day and thousands of larvae. The use of poisons in operations involving the dipping of cattle against ticks saw die-off in many farming areas, but in wilderness areas such as Hluhluwe, uMkhuze, and the remaining tracts of land in the iSimangaliso Wetland Park in Zululand, numbers ensured a survivable remnant.

Relocation under the auspices of Endangered Wildlife Trust

In the past, park authorities have captured and released red-billed oxpeckers onto farmland where they had previously occurred. The Operation Oxpecker project which falls under the Endangered Wildlife Trust noted that numbers started to decline years ago when hunting and rinderpest severely affected the numbers of large Animals that host the birds.

These days, the reintroduction of the birds into commercial farm lands needs to be done with full cooperation from the farmer. They have to tolerate the fact that the birds will open up and keep open any wounds on livestock. Although this can be beneficial to the animals, as it can prevent infection and keep the wounds clean, many farmers do not like them.

They also have to use dips for ticks that will not kill the red-billed oxpeckers. As the birds will increase and move into neighboring areas, it is preferable that a number of local farmers adopt the same practices.

The rise of game farming and conversion of cattle farms to wildlife conservancies that provide private protected areas for animals and the visitors who wish to experience an African safari has resulted in a larger area where they can live and breed in safety.

The Zululand Rhino Reserve in western Zululand is one example of a group of landowners who provide a haven for large mammals such as rhino and elephants and the oxpeckers who live in symbiosis with them.

Adding value to wildlife photos

For photographersand bird watching lovers, the oxpeckers provide an endless source of value to add to photos of big game species in the protected areas. The iconic pictures of the brown birds with the bright red bill are coveted. Nevertheless, the birds are often clownish and almost act camera shy – preferring to nip across to the other side of their host just as the shutter is ready to capture the image. Nevertheless, patience will reward even amateur photographers sitting at one of the hides at the waterholes of Zululand.

The short video below explains some further interesting facts about these blood-eating birds.