Pecking order re-established in Northern Cape

Red-billed oxpeckers in the cage at Stofdam in Mokala National Park.

oxpecker-text2 The birds were relocated by the Batteleurs, a non-profit voluntary organisation, from Limpopo.
(Images: SANParks)

oxpecker-text3 Oxpeckers offer the best biological solution to control tick loads on animals.
(Image: Johan van Rensburg/Flickr)

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Wilma den Hartigh

A joint conservation initiative by South African National Parks (SANParks) and The Endangered Wildlife Trust (EWT) has successfully reintroduced red-billed oxpeckers to the Mokala National Park in the Northern Cape, after they disappeared from the area for more than half a century.

Red-billed oxpeckers are easy to spot – they are the ones you usually see perched on large game such as rhinos, giraffes, elephants, Cape buffalo as well as livestock. And their hosts don’t mind them being there as these birds have an important role in the ecosystem to naturally keep skin parasites on animals under control – they eat hundreds of ticks, fleas and flies every day.

Mokala Park manager Deon Joubert says the re-establishment of red-billed oxpecker populations will have a significant impact on animal disease control in the park and the greater Kimberly area.

They will help to protect disease-free buffalo from sickness, reduce external parasite numbers on animals in neighbouring farms, and restore biodiversity.

Why did they disappear?

Red-billed oxpeckers were prevalent in the greater Kimberley area about 60 years ago, but with the introduction of dips and treatments for overseas cattle breeds, the birds started going into decline and eventually disappeared from the region completely.

The use of harsh pesticides became necessary when farmers introduced European livestock to the area. Unlike many indigenous breeds that have good immunity to pests and parasites such as the Tsetse fly, Blackfly and various tick-borne diseases, European livestock had no resistance.

Even with the help of oxpeckers, which don’t distinguish their hosts, European breeds continued to suffer heavy tick loads.

Leigh Combrink, project co-ordinator for Operation Oxpecker, a project of the EWT, says in the past the use of arsenic-containing pesticides was responsible for the decline in oxpecker numbers. These days pesticides containing organophosphates are a major threat to the survival of birds generally.

According to the EWT Wildlife Conflict Prevention Group, arsenical, organochlorine and organophosphate dips had such a major impact on these birds that yellow-billed oxpeckers become extinct in South Africa during the former half of the 20th century. The red-billed oxpecker survived in only a few areas.

But now the successful relocation of 21 red-billed oxpeckers to the Kimberly area has made it possible for the birds to again work alongside livestock and game owners to control ticks.

A successful relocation

The relocation took place in September 2012, when the 21 birds were released into a temporary cage at a dam in the park, situated close to a bird hide. The temporary enclosure allowed the birds to acclimatise to their new environment, before being released into the park.

They were captured in Limpopo by the EWT and flown to the park by the Batteleurs, a non-profit voluntary organisation.

Arranging an operation of this kind is a lengthy process.

“Before we can even consider releasing birds into an area we need to ensure that landowners at and around the release site are on board with having oxpeckers in the area,” says Combrink. They should also be willing to manage their livestock or game using oxpecker-compatible pesticides.

Then the team identifies a capture site and applies for permits to capture and transport the birds.

The capture process involves about a week of setting up nets to capture the birds, before they are moved to a temporary holding facility for one to two weeks for quarantine purposes.

While the birds are in the holding facility they feed on a diet of 50% lean mince and 50% blood mixture. Avistress, a vitamin and electrolyte supplement, is placed in the water to assist the birds with the stress of handling and transportation.

Ahead of the release the site was equipped with nesting boxes for all the birds. The West Rand Honorary Rangers sponsored 28 nest boxes for the Mokala National Park.

Since the relocation the birds have already been spotted on kudu and warthog in the park.

Joubert says the birds are adapting well and young have already been born and seen in the park.

“Monitoring is very difficult and we rely on farmer feedback and visitor sightings,” he says. “One of our farmers has already informed us of seeing the birds on his cattle. He was very excited and we will be giving him a nest box to put up on his farm.”

Combrink says a fieldworker from the EWT will be keeping an eye on the Mokala birds to monitor their breeding attempts and population growth.

Protecting new populations

If the newly-established oxpecker population is to survive in the area, it is essential to protect their food supply.

“The habitat is mostly still sufficient to support oxpeckers,” Combrink says.

She says if landowners know of oxpeckers in their area, and want to encourage the birds onto their property, the best method would be to put up nesting boxes near water sources.

“The biggest threat is the use of pesticides containing organophospates and the use of home-brews where landowners buy ingredients and make their own dips,” she says.

Oxpeckers can be a farmer’s greatest natural ally on game and cattle farms, but it is important to offer them the best chance of survival by managing tick infestations with the correct products.

The Wildlife Conflict Prevention Group suggests the use of chemicals with ingredients such as pyrethroid and amidine acaricides that have a very low toxicity to birds.

Since the introduction of less toxic chemicals yellow-billed oxpeckers have moved back into the north eastern parts of South Africa and are now well represented in the Kruger National Park.

Red-billed oxpeckers are still more widely distributed, and are found in Limpopo, the North West, Mpumalanga, Northern Cape, Gauteng, Eastern Cape and KwaZulu-Natal provinces.

Oxpecker numbers are far from what they used to be before chemical tick control became popular, but there seems to be hope for the future of these useful birds.

“Oxpeckers provide a useful ecosystem service through the removal of ticks,” says Combrink.

In a natural system, the use of oxpeckers to perform this service is the best solution to the problem of controlling tick loads on animals.

Slideshow image courtesy of Johan van Rensburg/Flickr