By 1897, they were completely extinct in South Africa, but 82 years later yellow-billed oxpeckers miraculously returned to the Kruger National Park. Although little is known about these tick-loving birds, one researcher is determined to find out more. By Arnold Ras

In South Africa, yellow-billed oxpeckers (Buphagus africanus) are found only in the Kruger National Park and adjoining private nature reserves. At the end of the 1800s, the species had gone extinct in SA due to threats such as the rinderpest and toxic cattle dips. Then in 1979 the birds re-appeared in Kruger’s Shingwedzi area – without any human intervention. These days, there are more questions than answers when yellow-billed oxpeckers are the topic of discussion. But not for long…

Guy Hausler of SANParks’ Veterinary Wildlife Services in Skukuza is the primary investigator of the Kruger National Park Yellow-billed Oxpecker Project. For Guy, yellow-billed oxpeckers have always held a fascination and he is now collecting data for his master’s degree in nature conservation.

Yellow-billed oxpecker-Kruger-Ian White (7)-min

Picture by Ian White

“Yellow-billed oxpeckers have spread throughout the park over the last 30-odd years and they are doing, we think, fairly well. The thing is, no one really knows. We see them a lot, but nobody knows the exact extent of their distribution. Although they are currently listed as least concern by the IUCN, they have experienced crazy range constrictions elsewhere in Africa,” says Guy.

Because the birds are generally poorly studied, Guy’s research aims to discover more about the species. Not only their current fine-scale distribution in the Kruger, but also their nesting behaviour, ecology and host preferences.

“For example: if we remove all the rhinos or buffaloes, how will this impact the yellow-billed oxpeckers? This is the first research conducted with the bird in hand. We are sampling the birds to try and find out exactly what they’re eating and whether there’s a difference between the diets of yellow-billed and red-billed oxpeckers (Buphagus erythrorynchus) – the two species often exist together. It’s very rare in nature that you’ve got two such closely related species using the same hosts.”

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Picture by Barry Christensen

Finding and monitoring yellow-billed oxpecker nests is also a priority. “The description of nesting ecology of the species has never been done in southern Africa. This is part of why visitor sightings are so important. For us to go and look for the nests takes a lot of time. Almost all of the 12 nest sightings we received this summer were reported by visitors. These sightings mean extra eyes on the ground and are invaluable.”

So far Guy’s research has unveiled some interesting findings. “Some very localised, but very often seen small populations of birds occur at spots in the south of the park – at a single pan on the S30 for example – where the birds are otherwise uncommon. They were also spotted all the way down to the Malelane and Crocodile Bridge gates. Traditionally, many birders think yellow-billed oxpeckers are not found south of Satara.”

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Picture by Ian White

Red-billed or yellow-billed?

  • The yellow-billed oxpecker’s bill has a distinct yellow base.
  • Red-billed oxpeckers have a prominent yellow eye-ring.
  • Yellow-billed oxpeckers have a pale, beige-coloured rump.
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Picture by Ian White

Your sightings matter

Want to be a citizen scientist? When you spot a yellow-billed oxpecker during your next Kruger visit, make sure to record the following data:

  1. Date
  2. GPS co-ordinates and an accurate description of the location
  3. Host species
  4. Take a photo of the bird
  5. Look for any nesting activity

Submit the data, along with your personal details via email ([email protected]), WhatsApp (+27 (0)79 967 6109), or visit the Kruger National Park Yellow-billed Oxpecker Project’s Facebook page.

Important: Don’t post any pictures of rhino on social media.

Submit and win

With every submission, you will be entered into a lucky draw to stand a chance to win a R10,000 voucher for photographic equipment. The winner will be announced at the end of 2018.

Featured picture by Ian White