Oxpecker

Buphagus erythrorhyncus & Buphagus africanus

Last updated: November 2, 2022
Verified by: AZ Animals Staff
Image Credit iStock.com/RudiHulshof

The oxpecker, known as the rhino’s guard, alerts its host to danger with a loud commotion

Oxpecker Scientific Classification

Kingdom
Animalia
Phylum
Chordata
Class
Aves
Order
Passeriformes
Family
Buphagidae
Genus
Buphagus
Scientific Name
Buphagus erythrorhyncus & Buphagus africanus

Read our Complete Guide to Classification of Animals.

Oxpecker Conservation Status

Oxpecker Locations

Oxpecker Locations

Oxpecker Facts

Prey
Ticks, mites, maggots
Main Prey
Ticks
Name Of Young
Chicks
Group Behavior
  • Group
  • Pair
  • Flocks
Fun Fact
The oxpecker, known as the rhino’s guard, alerts its host to danger with a loud commotion
Biggest Threat
Chemical pesticides; Decline in host species
Most Distinctive Feature
Red and yellow or yellow bill
Distinctive Feature
Gray body; stiff tail feathers, light undersides; short legs; sharp claws; light rump on yellow-billed species
Other Name(s)
yellow-billed oxpecker, red-billed oxpecker
Incubation Period
12 to 13 days
Age Of Fledgling
25 to 30 days
Habitat
Sub-Saharan savanna
Predators
Possibly snakes
Diet
Omnivore
Lifestyle
  • Diurnal
  • Flock
  • Pair
Favorite Food
Ticks
Common Name
Red-billed oxpecker; Yellow-billed oxpecker
Special Features
Red eyes; Red-billed species has red bill and yellow eye wattle; Yellow-billed species has red and yellow bill and no eye wattle
Number Of Species
2
Location
Sub-Saharan Africa
Average Clutch Size
2
Group
Small flocks
Nesting Location
In tree cavities

Oxpecker Physical Characteristics

Color
  • Brown
  • Grey
  • Yellow
  • Red
Skin Type
Feathers
Lifespan
Up to 15 years
Weight
Up to 2 ounces
Length
7 to 9 inches
Venomous
No
Aggression
Medium

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The oxpecker, known as the rhino’s guard, alerts its host to danger with a loud commotion!

The oxpecker is a native of sub-Saharan Africa that spends most of its life on the backs of its hosts. It feeds on ticks, larvae and other parasites that infest large mammals like the black rhinoceros, African buffalo, hippopotamus and many more. However, it also dines on their blood, earwax, mucus and other secretions. These birds avoid most predators by hanging out with their large hosts and working together in groups of five or six to raise their young. Their numbers are declining, and their greatest threats, unfortunately, come from humans.  

Incredible Oxpecker Facts

  • Oxpeckers are sometimes called tickbirds.
  • These species raise their young in groups of 5 or 6, with one breeding pair and a few helpers.
  • These hungry birds can eat hundreds of ticks and up to 12,000 larvae per day.
  • When the two species of oxpeckers share territory, the yellow-billed variety are dominant.
  • Rhinos are four times as likely to notice an approaching human if they are accompanied by these birds.
  • Pesticides meant to eliminate parasites from livestock are often deadly to oxpeckers.

Where to Find Oxpecker

Both the red-billed and the yellow-billed species are found in the savannas of sub-Saharan Africa in areas where there are at least some large trees for nesting. They live in areas with large game animals or livestock, on which they are dependent.

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The yellow-billed oxpecker ranges from the western coast of Senegal across the continent toward Kenya, and south in distributed areas all the way to South Africa. They live in elevations from sea level up to 9.800 feet. The red-billed oxpecker is found on the eastern side of Africa, from Ethiopia to South Africa. The ranges of both species sometimes overlap.

Oxpecker Scientific Name

The two species of oxpeckers are the only members of the genus Buphagus and the family, Buphagidae. Buphagus is derived from the Greek words, “bous,” meaning ox or cow, and “phago,” which refers to eating. The name makes sense, given the feeding habits of these birds.

The name of the yellow-billed oxpecker, Buphagus africanus, is pretty clear. The red-billed oxpecker, Buphagus erythrorhyncus, makes sense, too, given that “erythro” means red and “rhynchus” refers to a snout or bill. The oxpeckers once belonged to the Sturnidae family, but they were reassigned in 1828.

Oxpecker Appearance

Oxpecker
Pesticides meant to eliminate parasites from livestock are often deadly to oxpeckers.

Nwdph/Shutterstock.com

The two species of oxpeckers are similar in appearance. They have brownish-gray feathers with lighter underparts. Their legs are short, and they have three sharp claws facing forward and one facing backward. Oxpecker feet are strong and excellent for clinging to surfaces or climbing. They also have stiff tail feathers, similar to those of a woodpecker, which help them to balance. They have red eyes and bright bills.

Yellow-billed oxpeckers have yellow bills tipped in red. They do not have a wattle around their eye. Their rump is light in color like their belly. Red-billed oxpeckers have a red bill, a yellow wattle around their eye, and a dark rump.

Both species are about the same size, averaging approximately eight inches in length. They weigh close to two ounces. Males and females of the species look similar, with males just a little bit larger.  

Oxpecker Behavior

Oxpeckers live in small flocks and spend much of their lives perched on the backs or heads of large game animals and livestock. This is where they find their food, interact with other birds in their community, and even sleep when they are not busy breeding. Some of the host animals include the African buffalo, black rhinoceros, wildebeest and hippopotamus. Zebras and giraffes, warthogs and impalas are also common hosts.

Oxpeckers do their best to avoid danger. They do not interact with carnivores or primates, and are less likely to be found on elephants, possibly because they could more easily knock them off with their long trunks and tails.

Oxpeckers also help their hosts to avoid danger , including humans. The red-billed oxpecker is known in Swahili as “Askari wa kifaru, the rhino’s guard.” That is because when the birds notice a potential threat, they react with loud commotion. Their shrill, crackling calls alert their hosts to the approaching danger. According to a study done in 2020, black rhinos accompanied by oxpeckers were 4 times as likely to detect approaching humans than those without the birds.

Diet

The oxpecker diet consists mainly of ticks, mites. tick and insect larvae, and other parasites found on the skin of their preferred host animals. They can eat hundreds or even thousands of parasites each day. Sometimes they will also catch flying insects on the wing.

Research indicates that oxpeckers not only eat parasites, they also eat the blood of their host animals. When researchers studied the relationship between domestic cattle and oxpeckers in Zimbabwe, they found that there was no significant difference in the number of ticks on the cattle regardless of the presence of the birds. However, the cattle with the birds present had significantly more wounds, and their wounds took much longer to heal than the cattle with no oxpeckers. Researchers observes the birds pecking at wounds even pecking at tick attachment sites without actually removing the ticks.

In addition to blood, oxpeckers also eat dead skin, earwax, mucus, and other secretions from their hosts.    

Oxpecker Reproduction

Oxpeckers form cooperative groups of around five or six birds to raise their young. These groups include one active breeding pair with the rest, usually prior offspring, acting as helpers. They build a cup-shaped nest made of dried grass or animal dung and animal hair inside a tree cavity and seal up crevices or holes with more dung. Yellow-billed oxpeckers average two to three eggs, while the red-billed birds sometimes lay up to five.

Incubation takes around 12 or 13 days, and the nestlings fledge after around 25 to 30 days. The helper birds and the parents tend to the young, removing fecal sacs and shells from the nest and delivering food. After the nestlings fledge, the adults in the group continue to care for them until they reach independence. The birds in the group can be aggressive toward outsiders during the breeding season, which can include up to three broods per year.

Predators

Information on oxpecker predators is nearly impossible to find. Perhaps this is because the birds form such close relationships with their host animals that the adults are in little danger from typical sub-Saharan predators like lions, cheetahs, hyenas, or crocodiles. Nest predators, such as snakes, might be a greater threat to the birds, but with their cooperative breeding behavior, the nestlings are better protected than many other species might be.

Lifespan of the Oxpecker

Oxpeckers can live up to 15 years in the wild. The size of their population is unknown. Although both the yellow-billed and red-billed oxpeckers are listed as species of least concern on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, scientists believe their numbers are declining.

Two of the greatest threats that these birds face are the population decline of their host animals and the widespread use of chemical pesticides on livestock. Researchers estimate that roughly half of the large mammals in eastern Africa have been lost in the last 50 years, mostly due to habitat loss and hunting. As the herds of host animals disappeared, so did the food source for many of the region’s oxpeckers.

Pesticides containing arsenic and organophosphates have also proven deadly for oxpeckers and have led to local extinctions. The conservation project, Operation Oxpecker, has made efforts in recent years to capture and relocate oxpeckers to areas where the birds once had robust populations. Researchers are also helping to educate farmers about safer pesticides that will protect their livestock without harming the birds.     

Similar Animals

  • Wattled Jacana – This South American bird has a similar mutualistic relationship to capybaras as the oxpeckers do to their hosts.
  • Cattle Egret – This amazingly adaptable species can be found all around the world, often following cattle or other livestock and eating the insects they stir up.
  • Brown-headed Cowbird – This North American bird has a historical relationship with native bison and cattle, eating ticks, flies and other pests that irritate its hosts.

Sources

https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0960982220303535

https://academic.oup.com/beheco/article/11/2/154/204658

https://www.sabisabi.com/blog/22656/why-so-rare/

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6112642/

https://www.krugerpark.co.za/krugerpark-times-3-19-south-africas-oxpeckers-23769.html

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About the Author

Tavia discovered she had a gift for teaching when she was 21 years old. Having recently changed her major from engineering to wildlife biology, she was thrilled to take on an internship with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. She began her work excited about going into the field and saving endangered species, but soon realized she could make the biggest difference by helping to educate young people about animals, the environment and science in general. Tavia loves all animals, especially the ones that need our help the most. Over the years, she has cared for many pets, including snakes, toads, a tarantula, tree frogs, a salamander, hissing cockroaches, mice, donkeys, calves, horses, and a number of cats and dogs, but dogs are definitely her favorite! She believes that together, we can make our world a better place.

Oxpecker FAQs (Frequently Asked Questions) 

What does the oxpecker look like?

Oxpeckers are brownish-gray birds, about eight inches long, with lighter undersides, short legs, long stiff tails, sharp claws and red eyes. Yellow-billed oxpeckers have a light-colored rump, a yellow bill with a red tip, and no eye wattle. Red-billed oxpeckers have a dark rump, red bill, and yellow eye wattle.

How many varieties of oxpeckers exist?

There are two different species of oxpeckers. The red-billed oxpecker, or Buphagus erythrorhynchus, and the yellow-billed oxpecker, or Buphagus africanus.

What makes the oxpecker special?

When oxpeckers notice a potential threat, they react with loud commotion. Their shrill, crackling calls alert their hosts to the approaching danger. The red-billed oxpecker is known in Swahili as “Askari wa kifaru, the rhino’s guard.”

Where do oxpeckers live?

Oxpeckers live in the savannas of sub-Saharan Africa. The yellow-billed oxpecker ranges from the western coast of Senegal across the continent toward Kenya, and south in distributed areas all the way to South Africa. They live in elevations from sea level up to 9.800 feet. The red-billed oxpecker is found on the eastern side of Africa, from Ethiopia to South Africa.

What do oxpeckers eat?

The oxpecker diet consists mainly of ticks, mites. tick and insect larvae, and other parasites found on the skin of their preferred host animals. They sometimes catch and eat flying insects like horseflies. They also eat the blood, dead skin, earwax, mucus and other secretions of their hosts.

How long do oxpeckers live?

Oxpeckers live up to 15 years in the wild.

Where do oxpeckers nest?

Oxpeckers nest in tree cavities. They build their cup-shaped nests of dried grass and dried dung, lined with animal hair that they pull from their hosts. They seal any cracks or holes near their nest with additional dung.

Are oxpeckers monogamous?

Oxpeckers seem to form monogamous pairs, but they raise their young in groups of about five or six, with the other birds, usually their older offspring, acting as helpers.

How many broods do oxpeckers have each year?

Oxpeckers have up to three broods per year, with between 2 to 5 eggs each.

Are oxpeckers rare?

Oxpeckers are not rare. They are listed as a species of least concern on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. However, their numbers are declining.

What are the greatest threats to oxpeckers?

The decline in population of the oxpecker’s large host animals and the use of chemical pesticides on livestock are the greatest threats to oxpeckers today.

Thank you for reading! Have some feedback for us? Contact the AZ Animals editorial team.

Sources
  1. Science Direct / Current Biology, Available here: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0960982220303535
  2. Oxford Academic / Behavioral Ecology, Available here: https://academic.oup.com/beheco/article/11/2/154/204658
  3. Sabi Sabi , Available here: https://www.sabisabi.com/blog/22656/why-so-rare/
  4. PLOS One, Available here: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6112642/
  5. Siyabona Africa, Available here: https://www.krugerpark.co.za/krugerpark-times-3-19-south-africas-oxpeckers-23769.html

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