The Kruger Oxpecker Army

We were expecting to see Oxpeckers in Kruger, but weren’t quite prepared for what we came across.  Not only were they on every large grazing species, but there were often a lot of oxpeckers on a single animal. They took their jobs really seriously!

Oxpeckers graze exclusively on the bodies of large mammals. Certain species are seemingly preferred, whereas others, like the Lichtenstein’s hartebeest or Topi are generally avoided. Smaller antelope such as lechwe, duikers and reedbuck are also avoided; the smallest regularly used species is the Impala, probably because of the heavy tick load and social nature of that species. In many parts of their range they now feed on cattle, but avoid camels. They feed on ectoparasites, particularly ticks, as well as insects infesting wounds and the flesh and blood of some wounds as well. They are sometimes classified as parasites, because they open wounds on the animals’ backs. From Wikipedia




Oxpeckers “cleaning” a wound on the back of a buffalo – not sure if this was helping the animal or causing the wound not to heal properly. ©WMB/

The surprise for me was seeing Oxpeckers on hippos. Hippos which were sunbathing on the riverbanks, as well as hippos that were drifting in the water.






A hippo-oxpecker party! ©LB/

The giraffe below obviously required lots of “grooming”! In silhouette and from a distance it the giraffe looked like it had bumps on it. The bumps turned out to be small army of oxpeckers!






Even the giraffe’s ossicones (horn-like structures) were getting attention!(©WMB/

This post is part of a series of Kruger National Park posts I will be publishing. It is also part of my daily posts for October 2016 – otherwise known as The October Dash

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Categories: Nature/Environment


I live on the Southern coast of South Africa, and write about the things that interest, amuse or inspire me. You can find me at and (my photoblog)


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14 Comments on “The Kruger Oxpecker Army”

  1. October 11, 2016 at 7:00 pm #

    I guess the oxpeckers are providing a much needed service! I think the moose here could use them. I just read a report about the moose infected with thousands of ticks — in some cases it is so severe the moose dies from it.

    • October 12, 2016 at 6:08 am #

      It’s strange that there isn’t a bird in the US which keeps the tick populations under control. Maybe because you have much colder winters the tick population is naturally knocked back each year? The oxpeckers aren’t just helping the wild animals and cattle, but in farming areas limit the amount of tick-borne diseases which are transmitted to humans.

  2. October 11, 2016 at 9:12 pm #

    Interesting! Perhaps there are some tiny insects to their liking the reason these birds are hiking at the back of each animal.

    • October 12, 2016 at 6:04 am #

      Yes, the birds are after the ticks and other parasites which live on the animals.

  3. October 11, 2016 at 10:46 pm #

    Wow, you certainly saw a lot of these birds. I have never seen an oxpecker on a giraffe or hippo. I wonder why they are so numerous at the moment? Obviously a large amount of ticks etc on the host animals, but I wonder if that is in response to some seasonal event? (I believe it it has been unseasonally very dry this winter in Jo’burg – maybe Kruger too?)

    • October 12, 2016 at 5:55 am #

      Yes, it’s apparently really dry in Kruger this year. I say apparently because compared to the Kalahari, Kruger still looked pretty green. I also don’t know what is normal for Kruger in terms of tick infestations. Will let you know if I discover anything.

  4. Eha
    October 12, 2016 at 1:24 am #

    OMG – knew there were birds but only now have the name! Those last three giraffe ones are incredible!! My guess is that the wound-cleaning has therapeutic value: OK, the tissue may be torn further apart, but the wound will be clean of infestation, and I have a funny feeling that the saliva of the birds may act as an antiseptic??

    • October 12, 2016 at 5:53 am #

      Do birds have magic saliva? Will have to ask an ecologist friend of mine about this. I had just read that the birds cleaned out the wound removing any dead flesh/skin and parasites which may have got into it. The debate about whether this is helpful or harmful hasn’t been resolved. It’s thought that the oxpeckers may keep the wound open, instead of cleaning it up and then leaving it to heal.

      • Eha
        October 12, 2016 at 6:39 am #

        Well, logic tells that if ‘they’ have nothing to gain, ‘they’ will not do it!! Mid-week-work, but I did go and talk to my fave Mr Google and those commenting seem to be exactly half-and-half in whether ’tis healing or harmful ?: would love to know a scientific view!

      • October 12, 2016 at 6:45 am #

        The oxpeckers obviously have a lot to gain! 🙂 Will get back to you if I discover anything.

  5. October 13, 2016 at 1:14 pm #

    I have never heard of this antiseptic saliva but will make some enquiries. Oxpeckers have been seriously affected by tick dips to such an extent that their historic range is much reduced in Namibia. There are signs of an increase in some areas. Someone called Irene Stutterheim was doing some ex situ breeding and I think releasing many decades ago. Perhaps she will also have the answer on the saliva but I have no clue where she is now..

    • October 13, 2016 at 3:36 pm #

      Hi Dave! Appreciate your input on this “debate”. 😉 Maybe all the oxpeckers from the farmlands are moving to the reserves? It certainly seemed like that to us. .

  6. October 15, 2016 at 11:16 pm #

    What an unusual sight! Great pics, Lisa and Willie.

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