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The Red billed & Yellow billed Oxpecker

The Yellow billed Oxpecker was considered extinct as a breeding species in South Africa by 1920. The main cause for its disappearance is the widespread over-hunting of buffalo and rhino during the late 1800's. The rinderpest epidemic that decimated cattle numbers in the 1880's and the subsequent use of arsenic dips for cattle also played a role.

The species has reconolised parts of South Africa and although still listed as vulnerable, is now estimated to number 150 to 300 pairs. The overwhelming majority occurs in the Kruger National Park.

Both the Red billed and Yellow billed oxpeckers are endemic to the continent and are co-operative breeders. This means that only one pair within a larger group, usually up to 5 birds, actually breed. The other members of the group help in gathering nesting material.

These helpers are believed to be young birds that have stayed on to assist in the next breeding cycle.

Only the dominant pair incubates the eggs. The eggs are laid in nests in tree cavities that are lined primarily with the hair of their mammalian hosts.

The Yellow billed Oxpecker is slightly larger than its Red billed cousin. The feeding styles of the two species mean that they favour different hosts and different tick species.

The well-known scissoring action of the Red billed Oxpecker enables this species to very efficiently comb through the pelage of its host. Up to 1666 ticks have been found in the stomach of a single bird of this species. It uses both hairy and non-hirsute mammals in the Kruger Park. It is frequently seen on species as diverse as giraffe, buffalo, Impala, White Rhino and Warthog.

Yellow billed Oxpeckers by contrast have thicker, seemingly less dexterous bills. They peck at, rather than scissors through the hair of their host. The primary host of Yellow billed Oxpecker was found to be buffalo, followed by giraffe, Impala and Warthog.

The Red billed Oxpecker is distributed in a discontinuous belt across the eastern half of the continent. From Eritrea in the north through to South Africa's KwaZulu Natal Province.

The Yellow billed Oxpecker enjoys a more extensive range across the Savannah areas of West Africa and a patchy occurrence in east and southern Africa.

In 1979 a handful of sightings in the extreme northern reaches of the Kruger National Park provided the first evidence of a natural recolonisation of the country.

These birds were suspected of having moved out of Zimbabwe's south-eastern Lowveld. This occurred due to the pressures of the civil war on game and cattle. The population must have been small at this stage with sightings very localized.

The first confirmed breeding record was only obtained six years later in December 1985. Birds seen much further south in Kruger in the mid-1980s led to suggestion that the species was also colonizing from Mozambique in the east. There is evidence to suggest that central Kruger Park now harbours a healthy breeding population of this species.





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