The Red-billed Oxpecker is not an endangered species in the CITES lists but poisoning had wiped it out in certain livestock farming areas of South Africa. Now, with a little help, the Oxpecker is re-establishing itself.

Red Billed OxpeckerThe Red-billed Oxpecker is a member of the starling and myna family Sturndidae. It is native to the Savannah of sub-Saharan Africa, from the Central African Republic east to Sudan and south to northern and eastern South Africa.

It is basically an insect eater, but gets its name from its habit of feeding on ticks and other insects living on the hides of large animals. While it is claimed that it can eat up to 100 engorged ticks a day this is often secondary as its favourite food is blood which it sources by opening tick bites with its beak. It is even claimed it will stop wounds from healing to ensure an ongoing supply of blood.With the increase in more intensive cattle farming and the introduction of less hardy breeds from Europe there was a move to dipping to manage the tick load on cattle. Poisonous dips, often arsenic based, were widely used and poisoned the oxpeckers, which die within 48 hours of eating arsenic coated.ticks

The Yellow-billed Oxpecker, formerly widespread in South Africa, had died out by 1910, mainly as a result of the introduction of arsenical dipping for livestock in 1902. The Red-billed Oxpecker survived, mainly in areas where there were significant populations of game, which were obviously not dipped.

With the increase in game farming in South Africa the Red-billed Oxpecker has thrived in game intensive areas and is now being reintroduced to areas where it had vanished. An example 36 Red-billed Oxpeckers captured on farms in Limpopo by the Endangered Wildlife Trust were transfered to the Ihlanze Commercial Game Ranch in the Otto’s Bluff-Karkloof Valley area in July last year. Ihlanze was chosen because of its high density of large wild animals, including buffalo, giraffe, eland, rhino and zebra. This appears to have been a success as birds are breeding and spreading to other areas. The release was in parallel with a move towards the introduction of oxpecker friendly dips which appears to have succeeded as the oxpeckers have also been sighted on cattle farms in the area. In another case 34 Red-Billed Oxpeckers captured at Platjan, on the border of Botswana and South Africa were transported by road in the dark, early, morning hours to the Spioenkop Nature Reserve within the greater Mount Royal Conservancy.

The reintroduction of the oxpecker offers an opportunity to study and better understand the role the oxpecker can play in the biological control of ticks on both game and cattle farms.

Photo credit:Profberger at Wkimedia Commons under a GNU Free Documentation License.