Safaris & stories
Africa Geographic
Wildlife . People . Travel
Africa Geographic Travel

Eyes wide open

It is a well known fact that the two species of oxpecker that occur in southern Africa, the red-billed and the yellow-billed, both feed on parasites that live on or in some of the larger plant-eating mammals that they share habitat with.


If you watch them really closely though, you may notice something a little different in that they don’t only eat ticks, or other creepy-crawlies, but seem to be quite busy catching the small, stingless bees and flies that cluster around the eyes of mammals where they steal a little salty moisture. I first noticed this behavior when looking closely at an image that I had taken of a pair of oxpeckers feeding around the head of a giraffe. Since then I have managed to observe it many more times, and capture a few images that show the behavior taking place. There are several different types of insects that will steal moisture from the tiny amounts of liquid that are secreted around the eyes and nose of most mammals. Hoverflies and stingless bees are just two of the insect varieties that will do this.


Obviously mammals don’t enjoy having these insects flying around and occasionally into their eyes, but other than closing their eyes, there is not too much they can do about it. If you look carefully at the accompanying image of the giraffe without any oxpeckers on his face, you will notice that there is an entire row of insects lined up on the rim of his eyelid. In his case it seems, no oxpeckers, many insects.

Fortunately for the mammals with oxpeckers in attendance, the oxpeckers seem to be fast enough to snap their beaks closed on the bothersome insects when they get close enough.

As humans we too are not free from being harassed by the moisture-seeking insects. It can be quite testing, especially when one is taking pictures. Imagine being totally lined up on your subject, camera firmly supported with both hands, waiting for just the right moment to unfold, and suddenly a couple of stingless bees start flying into your eyes and nose.


I am wondering just how long I would have to let my hair grow before the oxpeckers might decide to offer some help!


I am a South African who grew up in the former Transkei, (now the Eastern Cape) and I spent much of my time along the Wild Coast. For over ten years I have been working as a guide in northern Botswana, for a company called Wilderness Safaris. I spend many days of each year leading photographic safari trips with small groups of people through our fixed camps in the Kalahari, Okavango, Linyanti and Savuti regions, mostly. My special interests are birds, lions and photography, in no special order. When I am not guiding in the field, I take part in some of our companies environmental projects. Botswana is a country with a solid conservation ethic, and I am fortunate to be able to share some of what I do and see by means of my writing and my images. Visit my photography page