A close encounter with a couple of White Rhinos gave me a good opportunity to get a proper look at some Red-billed Ox-peckers Buphagus Erythrorhynchus that often accompany them.

JNB 25Jun13 White Rhino 04

Whilst the birds are usually associated with clearing ticks and dead skin, they are not averse to a bit of blood-letting. In fact it is widely thought that they prefer blood to bugs.

JNB 25Jun13 Red-billed Ox-pecker 03 - Copy

A study showed that a herd of cattle from which ox-peckers were shooed away over a prolonged study period showed no significant reduction in ticks compared to a herd which were allowed to host the birds. They did however show an increased incidence of wounds which the birds were thought to maintain and re-open.

JNB 25Jun13 Red-billed Ox-pecker 10

Rhino skin is very tough and despite spending much of their time amongst the thorn bushes, scratches are usually only superficial. Perhaps this is why the ox-peckers spend more time around the head. Vulnerable softer skin around the eyes, nostrils and lips may be more prone to scratching and the birds are not averse to a bit of snot and saliva when times are hard. There is also the hard to resist allure of the earwax. The same study showed that the ‘peckered’ birds had a reduced amount of earwax compared to the herd which were deprived of their ‘cleaners’.

JNB 25Jun13 Red-billed Ox-pecker 01

The White Rhino is a sociable grazer and can often be seen in small, relaxed groups. Look for the eponymous wide lips.

JNB 25Jun13 White Rhino 03

The Black Rhino is a browser with a hooked upper lip. It feeds alone on the thorny acacia bushes and is prone to being a touch spiky itself. Ironically the biggest similarity between the species is their colour (grey).

JNB 25Jun13 Red-billed Ox-pecker 04

Ticks are not fussy and work hard to pierce the thick skin or sensitive parts of both types and the ox-peckers are similarly casual as long as there is blood, earwax and ticks.

JNB 25Jun13 Red-billed Ox-pecker 08

I hope you will forgive me for concentrating more on the rhino, but they were very big and very close. They are fairly heedless of vehicles in Pilanesberg National Park, but it pays to respect their size and potential sudden turn of mood and speed.

JNB 25Jun13 Red-billed Ox-pecker 11

The Fork-tailed Drongo doesn’t claim to bring any benefit to the Rhinos, but neither does it cost the rhino to have it around. It simply follows them to see what bugs they kick up as they move through the bush.

JNB 25Jun13 Fork-tailed Drongo 03

It is more usually seen, strategically perched, on a branch close to the rhino’s shoulder. This way it can see anything that is disturbed by the huge grazing mouth, or brushed from the bushes as the rhino passes.

JNB 25Jun13 Fork-tailed Drongo 04

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Written by Redgannet
Redgannet worked for more than 35 years as a flight attendant for an international airline. He came to birding late in his career but, considering the distractions, doesn't regret the missed opportunities. He was paid to visit six continents and took full advantage of the chance to bird the world. He adopted the nom de blog, Redgannet, to avoid remonstrations from his overbearing employer, but secretly hoped that the air of mystery would make him more attractive to women. Now grounded, he is looking forward to seeing the seasons turn from a fixed point.