Klaserie River Sands

The oxpecker, a hitchhiker that makes itself useful

We can all recognise certain birds because they’re large, colourful, have an easily identifiable call, a distinctive style of flying or something special that sticks in the mind but, for many of us, the rest come in the category of l-b-j’s, “little brown jobs” that just don’t have whatever it takes to grab and retain our attention.

One l-b-j, however, is often mentioned in passing at Marula Lodge because he turns up in all sorts of places; backs, heads, ears, tails, necks, anywhere he can get a good grip with his very sharp claws and the promise of a meal.

It’s the oxpecker, often referred to as the tick bird.

Although he isn’t tolerated by elephants, waterbucks or hartebeest this red or yellow billed hitchhiker of the starling family loves to spend the day on a host animal.


He’s got very sharp claws for clinging and he then clambers around the host using his tail as a prop. He then uses his bill to comb the animal’s fur for ticks, flies and maggots. Blood and mucus provide additional nutrition so oxpeckers will peck at the host animal’s wounds to encourage blood flow.

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Host animals don’t seem to be at all bothered by the oxpecker. In fact, when alarmed, these little birds can act as an early warning system for their host by making a hissing ‘churr’ sound.


And after a day’s hike in the park on an obliging host, the oxpecker spends the night nesting in tree cavities. – Quite a relaxed life compared to many of his peers!

Watch out for him next time you’re out there on safari!

Marula Lodge

Marula Lodge is situated on the banks of the Luangwa river near the entrance to the South Luangwa National Park. We offer affordable accommodation and safaris for travellers and tourists alike. We can tailor your visit to suit your budget.

Africa Geographic