The Birds And The Beast
African Birdlife|May/June 2021
Addo’s bird/mammal associations
Mitch Reardon

above Red-billed Oxpeckers select hosts carrying the greatest number of ticks. One bird was found to have 1665 ticks in its stomach.

Cooperation is usually thought of as a relationship that involves consciously working together to produce a common benefit. However, cooperation can take different forms. Preconscious cooperation or symbiosis (Greek for ‘living together’) refers to a close, long-term partnership between two biologically different symbionts. Many animal and plant species take advantage of this behaviour, which visitors to southern Africa’s national parks and game reserves can best appreciate by watching for the curious interactions that exist between some bird species and big game.

Avian/mammalian associations are far more commonplace than most people realise. A 2018 study found that at least 48 bird species in sub-Saharan Africa have some form of feeding association with 31 species of large, wild living herbivorous mammals. While doing fieldwork in Addo Elephant National Park in the Eastern Cape I witnessed several classic examples of quite complex symbiotic relationships involving mutualism (when one species gets food while the other receives a valuable valet-cleaning service in return) and commensalism (when only one of the partners benefits while the other is unaffected). I also encountered some novel regional twists on the now-familiar symbiosis theme.

Of all the bird species that fraternise with beasts, the Red-billed Oxpecker Buphagus erythrorynchus and the Yellow-billed Oxpecker B. africanus have the most intimate and efficient relationships with their hosts. In the recondite language of science, theirs is an obligate mutualistic association in which one partner, the obligate mutualist (the oxpecker in this case), cannot survive without the other. Oxpeckers glean food exclusively from their hosts’ parasite-rich skin and there’s plenty to feed on. The hides of the buffaloes and rhinos that Addo’s Red-billed Oxpeckers preferentially rely on to find sustenance are veritable pastures of ticks, lice, fleas, mites and flies: an adult buffalo may carry up to 5000 ticks.

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