Conservation | The Return of the Oxpecker

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Giraffe with oxpeckers on its neck

The Oxpecker Reintroduction Project

Bruno and Cai Nebe

An ordinary, chilly morning broke on Mundulea Nature Reserve in the Otavi district in mid-June, 2011. Yet this time a crackling trrrii-quiss sound that had not been heard on Mundulea or the entire Otjozondjupa region for the past 60 years joined the usual francolin calls.

It was the cry of red-billed oxpeckers (Buphagus erythrorhynchus). Fifteen sat in a hastily built cage and waited to be fed a breakfast of bloodied mince. They pecked and fought for space around the small dog bowl, their red beaks working furiously while their yellow-ringed eyes darted around their new environment. They gave the distinct impression of being nature’s answer to Vampire Diaries. The night before, a research team had transported the oxpeckers some 850 kilometres from the Zambezi Region to Mundulea and were preparing to reintroduce the oxpeckers to the reserve. Bruno Nebe, leader of the ecological restoration project on Mundulea, orchestrated the initiative financed by the Namibia Nature Foundation and Nedbank’s Go Green Fund.
Oxpeckers are insectivorous and carnivorous birds that eat ectoparasites off large animals. In wildlife documentaries, they are often seen hovering around the faces and ears of buffaloes and other antelopes. In doing so, oxpeckers perform a vital task in ridding large mammals of parasites. Additionally, as early hunters in southern Africa discovered, oxpeckers warn their hosts of impending danger by shrilly chirping and flying off. In fact, the first ever literary description of an oxpecker came from Namibia in the diaries of Swedish explorer Charles John Andersson, when he found a group of oxpeckers perched on his oxen span near present-day Otavi during his travels through Southern Africa in the mid-1800s.
Yet, with the onset of colonialism, cattle ranching increased in north-central Namibia. Farmers shot most of the large game – the oxpeckers’ natural hosts – for meat and to reduce grazing competition for their cattle. Initially this did not deter the oxpecker populations – ticks and parasites affected cattle and wild animals equally.

The birds quickly adjusted to feeding off the slower moving cattle, leading to the common name “oxpecker”.
However, in the mid-1950s, farmers sought artificial means of limiting parasitic presence on their cattle. They began “dipping” cattle in anti-parasite poisons laced with arsenic and organo-chlorine. These poisonous concoctions killed parasites effectively, but also poisoned the oxpeckers that ate the affected parasites, leading to high death rates and unsuccessful breeding amongst the birds.
From the introduction of cattle-focused pesticides, the previously large oxpecker populations quickly declined. By the mid-1960s, the birds had all but disappeared from non-communal land. Cattle farmers were unconcerned about losing the oxpeckers, as their chemical replacements were allegedly more effective at killing parasites. Because oxpeckers often pecked and scratched the cattle’s scab wounds in order to guarantee future meals, some farmers argued their livestock’s hide value had increased because of the oxpeckers’ disappearance.
Yet viable populations survived on communal lands, or north of Nambia’s veterinary “Red Line”, and especially in the Zambezi Region. There, cattle herders either could not afford cattle dips or preferred allowing the oxpeckers to control their cattle’s parasites.

oxpecker with ring

Hartmut Kolb, assisting with the capturing of birds, displays a new clamped identification ring on a captured oxpecker

helping to hold an oxpecker

Experienced birder and assistant to the Mundulea Oxpecker Project, Mark Boorman, shows an onlooker how to handle an oxpecker

In 2009, three years of good rains in the Otavi district had led to tick infestations amongst cattle and game. Following the Mundulea’s protocol of ecological restoration, Nebe forwarded a plan to Namibia’s Ministry of Environment and Tourism (MET) to reintroduce oxpeckers to the region. Introducing oxpeckers provided a biologically sound solution to the problem and, with the MET’s blessing, would serve as a pilot project for possible future oxpecker reintroductions to the Etosha and Waterberg National Parks. Furthermore, cattle farmers were using modern, less toxic “dipping” fluids to treat their cattle on surrounding ranches, creating an environment conducive to the oxpeckers reintroduction.
Farmers around the reserve, particularly those that had previously lived in communal areas in northern Namibia, supported the project and accepted that oxpeckers would likely migrate to their land. Experienced ornithologists Hartmut Kolb and Mark Boorman travelled to a remote village on the Chobe River in the Zambezi Region and spent a week catching the oxpeckers. Unfortunately, oxpecker populations seemed much smaller than the local people claimed, so the catching process took longer than expected.
It took two years of visiting the area to assess how many birds could be caught without harming the Zambezi’s oxpecker population. Considerable time was spent involving local villagers in the project. Indunas, or chiefs, were engaged to ensure that communities understood the project’s intentions and bought into its purposes.
On the third mission to the Zambezi in June 2011, fifteen individual oxpeckers were caught. They were tested for DNA and gender – the gender of oxpeckers can only be determined by blood sampling – and temporarily safeguarded in a village hut. When the birds arrived on Mundulea, their cage was placed near a waterhole frequented by kudu, eland and impala for a week, which allowed the oxpeckers to see their future hosts and acclimatise to the new region. The big moment came when the little vampires were released.
As if on queue, the oxpeckers flew straight for the group of animals assembled at the waterhole. Unfortunately, the script of the peaceful scene where the oxpeckers gracefully land on the kudu’s back and happily start munching ticks to both the kudu’s and oxpeckers’ contentment – renewing a custom acted out for hundreds of years previously – clearly had not reached the startled kudu bull.

Giraffe oxpecker

A symbiotic relationship between oxpecker and host

Impala with tick infested ears; Without oxpeckers, animals like this Impala has no chnace to get rid of these ticks.

Tick infestations are likely to hit game populations on commercial land particularly hard

Almost six generations had passed since kudus on commercial land had encountered oxpeckers – enough time to wipe out any historical memory of the little birds eating ticks off them. Fearfully the bull reared, bucked and shook, rolling in the dust to get away from the oxpeckers and eventually ran off with the confused oxpeckers flying hungrily after him.
The oxpeckers have been seen sporadically on Mundulea since their release. Their small number has made the success of their reintroduction and their impact on the ecosystem difficult to gauge, although neighbouring farmers have reported them sitting on their cattle. There is a plan to bring more oxpeckers to Mundulea to supplement the small group, as establishing a viable breeding population seems key to ensuring the oxpeckers’ permanent return to the Otjozondjupa region.
Yet on the morning they re-appeared on Mundulea, the oxpeckers had something for the first time in half a century: a fighting chance to start again.

Bruno Nebe, owner of the Mundulea Nature Reserve

Under his leadership, Mundulea has become the benchmark for practicing ecological restoration in Namibia since its establishment in 2001. This practice has broad-based objectives to return ecologically mismanaged areas to their pre-colonial state. This includes negating bush encroachment and managing large and small mammal populations. Mundulea also serves as a sanctuary for endangered Namibian animals, such as black rhino, black-faced impala, roan antelope, tsessebe and particularly pangolins. Bruno divides his time between Mundulea and his Swakopmund-based tour company Turnstone Tours.

Fast Facts

  • Oxpeckers consume 100 engorged female ticks, and more than 12,000 larvae, per day
  • Oxpeckers are selective hosts on game, oxpeckers prefer rhinoceros to elephants; with regard to domestic animals oxpeckers perch on cattle, but not camels
  • Scientists are debating whether oxpeckers themselves are a type of parasite, because they reopen wounds on their hosts to attract more ticks
  • During the mating season, oxpeckers court and copulate while on their host
  • The oxpecker lineage has been traced to an extinct bird species in Eastern and South East Asia, which because of the oxpeckers’ geographic presence in Southern Africa, essentially makes them a “living fossil”

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