Red-billed Oxpecker: The rhino’s guard

​I’ve been working as an intern with the bird collection for the past six weeks. I was quite excited to find in the collection a Red-billed Oxpecker (Buphagus erythrorhynchus). Unfortunately, the specimen (see image left) looks rather drab as it has lost its magnificent yellow and red eye. The colour has also faded from its bill, although it retains its distinctive shape.

I was particularly pleased to see this bird in the collection because of the mutualistic relationship it shares with Black Rhino (Diceros bicornis). In Swahili, oxpeckers are known as “askari wa kifaru”, which means “the rhino’s guard”. This is because they warn rhino of approaching danger. 

Rhino have very poor eyesight and rely on their excellent hearing and sense of smell. Oxpeckers, like many birds, have excellent eyesight. They often perch on rhinos to feed on ticks and other skin parasites of rhino. However, when they spot a potential predator, such as a lion, they will fly into the air screeching. This warns the rhino that something might be up, and they had better be on the look-out.

What is really interesting is that, if the parasites weren’t present, the oxpeckers wouldn’t sit on the rhino’s back and provide this service. Hence, in a roundabout way, the presence of the parasites may be actually helping, rather than harming, the rhino.

By Andrew Stringer, 
Natural Sciences intern, 2014.

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