Nature really has forged the most wondrous and the strangest associations in her giant, dynamic multi-web of life; strange because we yet understand so little of the remarkable linkage system which binds and interlocks every item in the complex formula.
Take the red-billed oxpecker, for instance, which chooses to keep the company of vegetarian species such as rhino, buffalo, waterbuck, sable and roan antelope, impala, hippo, zebra and giraffe, just to name a few rather than of his own kind. Interestingly, the elephant particularly dislikes these busy birds and brushes them off with casual sweeps of its trunk.
If you’re an oxpecker, living in an area which supports your favourite kind of host, your life is pretty secure in all respects. From your benefactor you derive your daily bread, such as ticks and biting flies which you literally groom out of the hair with your sharp (sometimes painfully so) beak which “scissors” back and forth by opening and closing the laterally flattened edges of the blades. No wonder you are also known as the tickbird.
Your feet are marvellously adapted for clinging to your host. When he suddenly takes off you don’t lose your grip, for your long-tail adds balance and support as you are carried along, often at a giddy height and terrifying speed. There are times, of course, when a sudden head-shake unseats you, usually when you’ve taken too sharp a nip near the eye or ear – something you really should watch out for if you intend to keep on good terms with your supporter. In some enigmatic manner you are able to digest the ear-wax in the same way the honeyguide copes with bees’ wax, though possibly your favourite dish consists of those succulent, blood-distended ticks which seem to favour the shelter of the undertail.
When it gets unbearably hot, or when the rain comes down in sheets, you hop on to the sheltered side and wait till the weather improves. To get a drink you need to find a hippo from which to venture to water, for you’re a timid fellow and need just that little bit of moral support before exposing yourself to those ferocious hawks which might swoop down at any moment.
In return for all this generous hospitality you act as an alarm system. Your eyes are infinitely sharper than those of the mammals and when you sense danger you make sure everyone knows it which makes you very unpopular with every kind of hunter, including the human variety. In Swahili: askari wa kifaru means “the rhino’s guard”.
When summer sets in, however, you are overcome with an overpowering urge to seek out your own mate and build a nest. With infinite care and precision, your tree-hole nest if filled with grass and lined with the existing soft hair of one of your hosts.